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Conspiracy Theory and Consumer Practice: Collecting and the Paralysis of Interpretation in American Film


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CONSPIRACY THEORY AND CONSUMER PRACTICE: COLLECTING AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION IN AMERICAN FILM By WESLEY BEAL A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLOR IDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF MASTER OF ARTS UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA 2006

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Copyright 2006 by Wesley Beal

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iii ACKNOWLEDGMENTS I begin with a word of thanks to my t eachers and mentors. Phillip Wegner, Ed White, and Mark Fenster have given me unwa rranted support for this project, and they have offered much in the way of constructiv e criticism for where this project can go from here. I also thank Susan Hegeman and David Leverenz of the University of Florida and Kevin Asman, Rebecca Resinski, and Alex Ve rnon of Hendrix College, whose work and pedagogy have influenced me throughout my undergraduate and mast er’s training. My debt to each of these mentors is incalculable and I give them the highest praise I could apply to any teacher or colleague: their pass ions and ideas continue to inspire me as I move through different stages of my education. I must also thank my friends and colleague s who have helped shape this project. Principally, I express my gratitude for Joel Winkelman, who first taught me that the word “consume” is best used as an intransitive, fo r Evan Rogers, who is still trying to convince me that the moon landing was a hoax designed to intimidate the Soviets, and for Nicole LaRose and Michael Vastola, who have slowly converted me from the seductive dark arts of poststructuralism to the moral high ground of materialism. Finally, I owe my deepest thanks to Courtney Eason, who calmed me wh en the weight of these ideas wore me down.

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iv TABLE OF CONTENTS page ACKNOWLEDGMENTS.................................................................................................iii LIST OF FIGURES.............................................................................................................v ABSTRACT....................................................................................................................... vi CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION........................................................................................................1 Notes.......................................................................................................................... ...3 2 ON FORM....................................................................................................................4 Notes.......................................................................................................................... ...7 3 CONSUMPTION.........................................................................................................8 Notes.......................................................................................................................... .17 4 PRODUCTION...........................................................................................................19 Notes.......................................................................................................................... .21 5 MINING CONSPIRACY IN SILVER CITY : A CASE STUDY IN LYRICAL TRUTH AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION.....................................22 6 CONCLUSION: TOWARD A POSI TIVE CRITIQUE IN (CONSPIRACY) THEORY....................................................................................................................38 Notes.......................................................................................................................... .41 LIST OF REFERENCES...................................................................................................42 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH.............................................................................................45

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v LIST OF FIGURES Figure page 1 Detail of George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stevens ca. 1979-90, 5th version ......................................................................................................................17 2 Danny O’Brien ruminates on the earl y stages of his cognitive mapping.................28

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vi Abstract of Thesis Presen ted to the Graduate School of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts CONSPIRACY THEORY AND CONSUMER PRACTICE: COLLECTING AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION IN AMERICAN FILM By Wesley Beal May 2006 Chair: Phillip E. Wegner Major Department: English The ubiquity of the conspiratorial worldvi ew is nowhere more evident than in American film. Such films have helped the viewing public conceive of totality in the past, as in a spate of conspira torial films that flourished af ter the Watergate scandal, and indeed they serve a simila r function today, facilitating American filmgoers’ cognitive mapping of the social totality after 9/11. But though conspiracy theory nobly creates a space for this exercise in cognitive mapping, it also reinforces the market ideo logy of consumption. It does so by positing itself, the practice of conspiracy theorizing, as a consumer exercise that is to be habitualized. The problem with its relationship to consumpti on is that conspiracy theory, while often ostensibly challenging the status quo, tends through its fo rmal attributes to cultivate a habit of negative critique and foster a behavi or of complacent consumption that sustains the market paradigms of consumerism. This problem is not a moral one

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vii about complicity in the system of commodity consumerism, but it is a pragmatic crisis, because this process of consumption risks si nking conspiracy theory into a cycle of deferral that I am calling the paralysis of interpretation. John Sayles’s Silver City (2004) exemplifies the conspiracy theorist’s predicament. Its protagonist, Danny O’Brien, must enga ge in a process in which he collects information for his conspiratori al investigation, but his collecting defers any meaningful action throughout the film, leaving the conspirers untouched. Though O’Brien’s conspiracy theorizing fails in its drive toward public exposure of the conspiracy, we can learn from his methodology of lyrical trut h, which allows him to persist in his conspiratorial stance even when his collecti ng efforts encounter an information impasse. Ultimately, this paralysis of interpretati on is not just a problem for conspiracy theorists, but for critical theorists, as well. Practitioners of both fi elds need to recognize that the knowledge created by their theoriza tions is not enough to bring about social transformation. Instead, these theorists must recognize that the trul y radical project is one that synthesizes knowledge with an action th at has the potential to bring about change. This synthesis is the necessary next step for conspiracy theory if conspiracy theorizing will ever pose a significant challenge to the conspiracy that is contemporary life itself.

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1 CHAPTER 1 INTRODUCTION If its prevalence were ever in doubt, conspiracy theory has reasserted itself in recent years as the standby means for Americans to structure the world around them. The rhetoric of conspiracy has pervaded explanations of President George W. Bush’s elections in 2000 and 2004, the shadowy plots leading up to September 11th, and the United States’ path to war in Iraq. But politic s aside, the ubiquity of the conspiratorial worldview is nowhere more evident than in American film. As Richard Hofstadter famously attests, conspiracy theorizing reaches far back into American history, and more recent scholarship has focused on the pre ponderance of conspiratorial themes in contemporary film. In the opening chapter of The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and Space in the World System Fredric Jameson catalogues and critiques the conspiratorial films of the 1970s and early 1980s, surveying Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View (1974), All the President’s Men (1976), and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983). This spate of overtly conspiracy-themed fi lms can easily be attributed to the fallout from Watergate and to renewed efforts to discern, perhaps ev en redefine, the relationships between the individual and the social in light of Nixon’s cover-up. The post 9/11 milieu hosts a similar resurgence in conspiratorial films, ranging from trenchant documentaries to formulaic movi es to richly complicated films. Several of the documentaries—Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11 (2004) and Jeremy Earp’s and Sut Jalley’s Hijacking Catastrophe: 9/11, Fear, and the Selling of American Empire (2004), for example—deal explicitly with th e putative conspiracies surrounding 9/11, but

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2 many other documentaries and films incorporate conspiratorial narrativ es that ostensibly avoid the subject matter and trauma of the 9/11 attacks.1 The post 9/11 surge in conspiratorial films is undeniable, and at a ba se level it can be expl ained by the need for the individual to understand his relation to wh at may seem like a new, more threatening kind of totality. Jameson calls this method of situating the individua l within the social the process of cognitive mapping, and the impulse to provide this kind of social mapping radiates throughout the conspiratorial thematics of many post 9/11 films. Critics of the conspiracy theory genre have justly considered conspiratorial literatures in terms of fantasy, agency, social totality, and political efficacy. Hofstadter marginalizes conspiracy theory and theori sts by accusing them of making a “leap into fantasy,” which he explains is “the curious l eap in imagination that is always made at some critical point in the recital of even ts” (37). Timothy Melley characterizes the literary impulse to portray conspiratorial narr atives as representations of “agency panic,” which he describes as “an intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy, the conviction that one’s actions are being contro lled by someone else or that one has been ‘constructed’ by powerful, external agents” (vii ). Other scholars have seen conspiracy theory in a more positive, constructive light Jameson argues that conspiratorial texts “constitute an unconscious, collective effort at trying to figure out wh ere we are and what landscapes and forces confront us in a late twentieth cen tury whose abominations are heightened by their concealment and their bureaucratic impersonality” ( Geopolitical Aesthetic 3). Mark Fenster suggests that cons piracy theories carry a democratizing potential that he explains as “a utopia n desire to understa nd and confront the contradictions and conflicts of contemporary capitalism” (116).

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3 To this conversation I will add another di mension to the theorizing of conspiracy theory by arguing that it reinforces the mark et ideology of consumption. It does so by positing itself, the practi ce of conspiracy theorizing, as a c onsumer exercise that is to be habitualized. With references to contempor ary American films and other literatures, I will map out these critiques of the conspir acy theory genre, and I will explore how conspiracy theories, while often ostensibly challenging the status quo, tend through their formal attributes to cultivate a habit of negative critique and foster a behavior of complacent consumption that sustains the market paradigms of consumerism. Ultimately, my argument is not a moral one that decries conspiracy theory for its relationship to commodity consumerism. Instead, my critique is pragmatic, outlining the process through which conspiracy theory risks sinking into a cycle of deferral that I am calling the paralysis of interpretation. Notes 1 The list of post 9/11 conspirato rial literatures is indeed extensive, but a quick survey will help highlight their ubiquity. Conspira torial documentaries include Mark Achbar’s The Corporation (2004), Robert Greenwald’s Outfoxed: Rupert Murdoch’s War on Journalism (2004), and Sam Green’s and Bill Siegel’s The Weather Underground (2003). Formulaic renderings of conspiratorial narratives include National Treasure (2004) and The Interpreter (2005). More complicated conspiratori al plots have appeared in Jonathan Demme’s remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004), in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005), and in Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener (2005). Outside of the film arena, readers have consumed Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code (2003) to the point that it became a media phenomenon, a nd fans of the novel await Ron Howard’s film rendering, scheduled for release in spring of 2006.

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4 CHAPTER 2 ON FORM Any critique of a genre n ecessarily entails—or assumes—both a discussion of formal attributes and a peri odization. For conspiracy theory, such a discussion is particularly vexed, in part because the nature of its content and fo rm crosses so many of the traditional features of realism, modernism, and postmodernism. The practice of conspiracy theorizing, though it is found in Ma son-scares in the American eighteenth century and is a theoretical concern for Ma rx, has been considered by many to be a symptom of postmodernity, perhaps even its qu intessence. The faithfulness with which Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and others ha ve represented conspiratorial thinking throughout their careers bolsters the positions of those who would root conspiracy theory firmly in the postmodern camp. But conspiracy theorizing signals much more than postmodern paranoia. In his book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture Mark Fenster argues against such a position, writing that “the conspir acy narrative needs to be recognized for what it is: a utopian desire to understand and confront the contradictions and conflicts of contemporary capitalism” (116). Fenster’s argument here is that conspiratorial narratives aim to discover and represent something like a grand narrative. Similarly, Jameson, outlining his theory of cognitive mapping, writes that conspiracy theory is “a degraded figure of the total l ogic of late capital, a desperate attempt to represent the latter’s system” (“Cognitive Mapping” 286). Both Fenster and Jameson

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5 identify the key motive behind conspiratorial literature: the exposure of totality and the construction of a grand narrativ e that awaits interpretation. Thinking of conspiracy theory in terms of its insistence on a grand narrative thus seems to link it to modernism. Jameson grants that postmodernism accommodates an array of cultural productions, some of whic h may be residual im pulses of modernism.1 Conspiratorial literature allows us to see just such an inte rpenetration of these periods: a singular conspiracy theory, in its persistent assertions of a grand narrative, reflects a modernist impulse; a proliferati on of conspiracy theories, or perhaps associated theories, make information increasingly harder to interpret. Most scholars relegate peri odizing discussions such as these to the content of conspiracy theory, thus confining the field of terms to modernism and postmodernism; what remains, however, is to inve stigate the periodization of the form taken by conspiratorial narratives. Carl Freedman, studying paranoia in the novels of Philip K. Dick, writes that “the great ma jority of [science fiction] i nherits certain basic formal properties from the realist, as distinct from the modernist or post-modernist, novel: the typical SF text has a smoothly diachronic narr ative line and offers its characters as mimetic representations of human beings” (2 0). This distinction between form and content is crucial to a discussi on of narrative strategies in cons piratorial literature because it forces us to recognize that, no matter how uniquely conspiracy theory situates its content in the border sp aces of modernism and postmodernism, its narrative form places it within the familiar terrain of realism. Even in the ubiquitous episodes of The X-Files where conspiratorial thematics meet purel y fantasy subject matter—for example, the

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6 nationwide cover-up of decades’ worth of enco unters with extraterrestrials—the realist narrative formulation does not laps e into postmodern self-reflection. Linda Hutcheon, in her classic study The Politics of Postmodernism explains the politics behind realist narratives: “representat ion that presumes the transparency of the medium and thus the direct and natural link betw een sign and referent or between word and world” (32). In other words, realism a ttempts to figure totality indisputably and seamlessly. The political exigencies of a conspiracy theory require just such a “transparency of the medium” in order for a ny particular narrative to present itself—no matter how illogical or fantastical it may be in extreme cases—and its evidence in a manner accessible to a large public. Jameson t ouches on the need for this transparency when he writes, “On the global scale, alle gory allows the most random, minute, or isolated landscapes to function as a figura tive machinery in whic h questions about the system and its control over the local ceaselessly rise and fall” ( TGA 5). Accordingly, allegory offers a transparent, word-to-worl d realist narrative mech anism for providing a cognitive mapping’s representation of totality. If a conspiracy theory aspires to political utility, it cannot afford to indulge itself in fractured, ove rly complex narrative forms typical of high modernism or even literary pos tmodernism. Only with a realist narrative framework—and this is especially the case in film, which affects mimesis through its very representations of humans—can conspiracy theory aspire to relevance in the cultural marketplace. The employment of word-to-world narrative st rategies in conspiratorial literature also reflects a more orthodox historical periodi zation regarding the post 9/11 climate. If the events of 9/11 and the concomitant intern ational actions have in fact spurred the

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7 recent wave of conspiratorial films, one mi ght associate those events with a need to respond to real, felt crises with literature that aspires to repr esent that totality. In other words, the all-too-real bloodshed in the U. S., Afghanistan, and Iraq—not to mention in innumerable 9/11-related skirmishes elsewh ere—have demanded a shift from postmodern narratives to realist ones that can more e ffectively deliver representations of cognitive mapping. These cognitive mappings, especially in the hazy relations of globalization, are central to grasping domestic and internati onal power relations, and conspiratorial literature is one avenue for circulating such mappings. As we will see, however, this penchant for mapping demands that the conspira cy theorist engage in the collection of information, a process that ultimately risks deferring any real of action. Notes 1 In his foreword to Lyotard’s The Postmodern Condition Jameson refutes Lyotard’s denial of grand narratives in postmodern ism, choosing instead “to posit, not the disappearance of the great master-narratives, but their passage underground, as it were, their continuing but now unconscious effectivity as a way of ‘thinking about’ and acting in our current situation” (xii). Jameson pr ojects this line of thought onto Lyotard’s own writing when he suggests that Lyotard “has characterized postmodernism, not as that which follows modernism and its particular le gitimation crisis, but rather as a cyclical moment that returns before the emergence of ever new modernisms in the stricter sense” (xvi).

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8 CHAPTER 3 CONSUMPTION Don DeLillo characterizes the practice of conspiracy theory as an exercise in dietrologia a word that combines the Italian “ dietro ,” an adverb translated roughly as “behind,” with “ logia ,” a noun pertaining to the science or study of a given subject. He defines dietrologia as “the science of what is behind something. A suspicious event. The science of what is behind an event” (DeLillo, Underworld 280). As an enterprise modeling itself after science, conspiracy theory has a deep kinship with the practice of collecting—usually of data and other inform ation relevant to the theory at hand. This fundamental imperative to collect holds, whether we are considering the conspiracy theorist or his audi ence. Walter Benjamin writes in The Arcades Project that “what is decisive in collecting is that the objec t is detached from all its original functions in order to enter into the clos est conceivable relati on to things of the same kind” (204). Benjamin, addressing this practi ce of decontextualiz ation, adds that “t his relation is the diametric opposite of any utility, and falls in to the peculiar category of completeness” (204). This impulse to completeness reflect s the conspiracy theorist’s fidelity to a totalizing project, but it often situates conspiracy theo ry in a consumerist position that struggles to preserve critical distance from the totality it pu rports to maintain. Jameson, in Postmodernism demurs on this last subject, writing that “distance in general (including ‘critical distance’ in particular) has very precisel y been abolished in the new space of postmodernism” (48). The rehabilitati on of critical distance will be taken up in the last section of this essay.

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9 Crucial to this discussion is the connection Benjamin finds between collecting and allegory: “in every collector hi des an allegorist, and in ever y allegorist a collector. As far as the collector is concerned, his collecti on is never complete; for let him discover just a single piece missing, and everything he’s coll ected remains a patchwork, which is what things are for allegory from the beginning” (211). As we will see, the obstacles to completeness in a conspiratorial project pos e a significant challenge to the political efficacy of its practice. Still, the pairing of collector and allegorist highlights the realist, word-to-world exigencies of conspiracy theory : what the conspiratorial collector gathers bears significance in that the “patchwork” a ssembled from his collection performs the service of cognitive mapping, thereby conveyi ng a representation of relations on the social grid. For the conspiracy theorist, the practice of collecting takes as its primary object information. Evan Watkins, in Everyday Exchanges writes that conspiracy theorizing “is invariably represented as tr afficking in the currency of information” (100). The conspiratorial collector—whether an author of conspiratorial literat ure, a character in conspiracy fiction, or a political practitio ner of conspiracy theory—must research disparate sources and synthesize that informati on into a coherent, often realist, narrative.1 This thorough research can bolst er a non-fictional, historical conspiracy theory’s political impact and heighten the mimetic quali ties of a literary work of conspiracy. But the repetition of the collecting behavi or, if taken to an extreme, risks a continual deferral of conclusion or closure. What ’s worse, of course, is that this deferral of closure for the collection cycle negates th e conspiracy theory’s potential for political influence. Such a deferral of closure is precisely what Benjamin introduces when he

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10 explains that a collector cannot complete his collection and in stead can only aspire to a “patchwork.” Take for example this descrip tion of Nicholas Branc h, the historian whose job it is to compile a secret history of the Kennedy assassination for the CIA in Don DeLillo’s Libra : “Branch must study everything. He is in too deep to be selective. . The truth is he hasn’t writt en all that much. He has extensive and ove rlapping notes— notes in three-foot drifts, all these years of notes. But of act ual finished prose, there is precious little. It is impossi ble to stop assembling data” (59). Branch’s efforts at mapping the Kennedy assassination fail because he can only assemble a “patchwork” of evidence, testimonies, and conjectures. W ithout closure for his account of the plot against the president, Branch cannot offer a compelling, conclusive, complete conspiracy theory that would prompt a response from the government or offer a sense of resolution to the American public. This inability to bri ng closure to the conspi ratorial narrative is what I’m calling “the paralysis of interpretation.” The result of this collecting of informati on, if it is successfully completed or if it only holds information in place while the conspi racy theorist investig ates, often takes the organizational form of a map—either narratological or traditionally visual in nature. Jameson hails the activity of mapping—which he distinguishes from the production of maps—as a method of organizing information in to a coherent, if re ductive, representation of social relations, and he s uggests that this representation take the form of allegory, as noted above. In film, scenes in which a ch aracter draws up such a map are crucial for recognizing the piecing together of a conspira torial plot, and while a map is merely a representation of the more ambitious process of mapping, it offers the promise of engagement with the social. We can find exam ples of these visual mapping efforts in the

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11 striking creations of the arti st Mark Lombardi. Curator Robert Hobbs, whose essays introduce and accompany Lombardi ’s artwork in the volume Mark Lombardi: Global Networks explains the artist’s method of “narrative structures”: [Lombardi’s] drawings are particularly tim ely now, since he usua lly created visual narratives that expose the wo rldwide interconnections among corporations, political structures, and ad hoc hierarchies that c ontinue to be serious problems today. . To convey this, Lombardi created subtle traceries of information pertaining to global financial deals and offshore banking that often resemble spider webs or portions of them. (19) Each delicately simple pencil-on-paper drawing in the Global Networks exhibition organizes names, corporations, institutions and events via “tr aceries” that signal interrelationships. The subj ects of Lombardi’s mappings span financial networks of international businessmen, government scandals such as the Iran-Contra fiasco, and the corrupt connections of prominent politicians.2 Often these representations turn to subjects of conspiracy, as in BNL, Reagan, Bush, & Thatcher and the Arming of Iraq, ca. 1983-91 which ties the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro to the American and British leaders in a conspiracy to provide weapons to Iraq (Lombardi 87-91). At the most fundamental level, we can view Lombardi’s mapping art as an attempt to organize this collected information into a politically expedient repr esentation of a matrix of power, one that realizes the completeness of its collector’s vision. But not all conspiracy theo rists piece together their collected information as coherently as Mark Lombardi does with hi s concise mappings. Instead, many conspiracy theorists leave their collected findings in “p atchwork” form, in disa rray with loose ends untied and conclusions forestalled. Indee d, unmappable relations, or at least the conspiracy theorist’s inability to map thos e relations coherentl y, are very often the starting point for works of cons piratorial literature. For example, in Jonathan Demme’s

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12 remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004), Major Ben Marc o (Denzel Washington) uncovers a cache of inco herently related information in the hotel room of Corporal Al Melvin (Jeffrey Wright). Melvin’s info rmation—sketches of images from recovered memories, newspaper clippings, photographs, an d scrawled inscrip tions—sprawls across his walls and the pages of hi s journal with no discernable organization to help Marco comprehend its underlying narrative. Melvin and Marco have undergone the same brainwashing scheme, courtesy of the Manchurian Global corporation, a nd Marco struggles to piece together those events as they have recurred to him in dreams and flas hes of recovered memory and in the images from Melvin’s walls and journals. Melvin ’s failed attempt at mapping the conspiracy, though later redeemed by Marco’s detective wo rk, marks a fundamental necessity for the political impact of a conspiracy theory: representational organizat ion of the collected materials. Marco’s outline of the Manchurian conspiracy leaves no room for the fluidity of totality that Jameson advocates, bu t it does offer enough completeness for the appropriate agencies to disrupt the corporation’s plot for the White House. Still, Marco’s work fundamentally fails to register totality: the locali zed malfeasance of Manchurian Global is eliminated, but there is no menti on of systemic reform—much less anything approaching systemic transformation—at the conclusion of the film. Marco’s project bears out Jameson’s assertion that conspiracy theory is a “degraded” form of cognitive mapping, because it privileges lo cal ethics over totalizing pol itics and offers a reductive resolution to the systemic crisis for whic h Manchurian Global is but one example. Once a representational organization is in place, the ge neral audience of conspiratorial literatu re—and this always includes the conspiracy theorists themselves—

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13 also engages in a practice of collecting. Th e audience’s collecting, instead of focusing on specific bits of information, focuses on the c onspiratorial narrative itself, and for this reason it very closely resembles traditi onal processes of comm odity consumption. Indeed, Clare Birchall, in “The Commodificatio n of Conspiracy Theo ry,” argues that, as recent films have adopted the term “conspira cy” into their very titles, the notion of conspiracy theory “starts to signify a mark etable category rather than a subterranean activity” (235). When conspiracy theory is fe tishized to the point of becoming a standard commercial product, it not only risks its potential for critical distance, but it also enters into the field of rote consumption. Two issu es are at play here. First, as we have established, the formal logic of conspiracy theory resembles consumerism because of its process of collecting, which risks enervati ng its ability to organize action. Second, conspiracy theory has become an easily mark etable product, which impairs its critical distance. The issue of marketability doesn’t necessarily strip conspi racy theory of its “subterranean” foundation, but if it leads broader audi ences into the cycl e of collecting, this marketability increases the risk that action will be deferred. The repeated consumption of conspiracy theories, while offering the promise of agitating the viewing public into action, all too often reinforces the habitualiz ation of the market ideology of consumerism. The viewer of conspiratorial film collects the assorted narratives, and, to return to Be njamin’s terms, decontextua lizes those narratives into a “completeness” of paranoid likeness. By th is process, films on disparate subjects—take for example Jon Turteltaub’s National Treasure (2004) and Sydney Pollack’s The Interpreter (2005)—enter into a likeness that has nothing to do with their content, but that instead hinges on their shar ed conspiratorial sense. Th e conspiracies in these two

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14 films share nothing in their content, but viewers could associat e them in a bond of paranoid likeness. The collect or’s act of decontextualiza tion has the effect of depoliticizing each narrative into an iteration of paranoia, and the specific allegations and information illustrated along the way disappear under the larger mantle of mere paranoia. Timothy Melley, in Empire of Conspiracy explores the consumerist attributes of conspiracy theory in terms of addicti on. In a reading of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch Melley observes that several of the ch aracters are “control addicts,” and he explains that “the more radical idea of an addiction to control itself liquidates the concept of control altogether” (165). Conspirators lo se agency to their addiction to power, and it follows that conspiracy theorists and their audiences lose agency both to power-hungry cabals of conspirators and to their own cons umerist addictions. The narrative of the individual addicted to e xposing a conspiracy is co mmon enough—Warren Beatty’s Joseph Frady in The Parallax View and Denzel Washington’s Ben Marco in The Manchurian Candidate both exemplify the lone conspi racy theorist’s near-deranged fixation on uncovering and publicizing the cons piracy plot. What is less commonly recognized is that the methodical consump tion of these narrati ves marks a similar fixation—here a fixation on re petitious consumption—on the part of theater-going audiences or the reading public. In many ways, conspiracy theory become s fetishized because it so readily lends itself to an abundance of interpretations, and even this proliferation of interpretation marks a consumerist impulse. Mark Fenster explains that “conspiracy theory demands continual interpretation in which there is always something more to know about an alleged conspiracy, the evidence of which is subjected to an investigative machine that

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15 depends on the perpetual motion of signifi cation” (77-78). Of course, such an interminable process of interpretation indefi nitely suspends even a provisional conclusion or closure—again, Benjamin’s problematic of the collector’s “patchwork”—for the conspiratorial narrative, as the conspiracy theorist continuously pursues more information to strengthen his allegations. We can observe one example of this phenom enon as the paralysis of interpretation entraps Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) in Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut (1999). Concerned that his trespass into a hedonistic masquerade ball may have resulted in the death of a young woman—was she killed in a pe rverse sacrifice, or did she really die from a drug overdose as the newspapers repo rted?—Harford investig ates the cult-like group of debauchees, tries to ascertain the young woman’s identity, and questions his friends for whatever information they have re garding the nameless, faceless, Tristero-like sex organization. But the result of Harfor d’s detective work, de spite its thoroughness, disappoints; after returning from interviewing hi s last informant, he promises to his wife “I’ll tell you everything. I’ll tell you everything.” Harf ord, unable to compile enough information to break the cycle of interpre tation, leaves the circumstances of the young woman’s death forever veiled in mystery. No t only does the camera pull away from his explanation to his wife, but Harford takes no public acti on against what might be a murderous organization. The paralysis of interpretation threatens to render conspiracy theorists trapped in a never-ending process of consumption, and in still other ways the c onspiracy theorist’s interpretation complements consumer soci ety. Rem Koolhaas, studying Salvador Dali’s “Paranoid-Critical Method,” obs erves that this brand of c onspiracy theorizing “promises

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16 that, through conceptual recy cling, the worn, consumed contents of the world can be recharged or enriched like uranium, and that ever-new generations of false facts and fabricated evidences can be generated simply through the act of interpretation” (203). This process of “conceptual recycling” complicat es the act of collecting that is inherent to the conspiracy theorist’s behavior. Through the decontextualization of information, the conspiracy theorist creates a new product that, as Birchall reminds us is ready for sale on the market. Conspiracy theory, close kin if not synonym for “Paranoid-Critical Method,” repackages old information into a shiny, se xy new narrative, and this market-oriented recycling further strengthens the symbiotic relationship between c onspiracy theory and consumer society. However, the Paranoi d-Critical Method, in addition to its consumption-oriented “conceptual recycli ng,” creates opportunities for a productive radical critique, which we will explore later. My study of this symbiotic relationship has, so far, characterized conspiracy theory as a critical gesture toward to tality that enervates its own critical distance by reproducing consumer behaviors. Marx, detailing th e consumption of material and labor in Grundrisse writes that “the whole pr ocess therefore appears as productive consumption i.e. as consumption which terminates neither in a void nor in the mere subjectification of the objective, but which is, ra ther, again posited as an object ” (300-01). “Productive consumption” precisely explains the logic of conspiracy theory, which rarely offers enough completeness or conclusion to terminat e its cycle of interpretation and thereby posits itself as its own object, as a practice to be repeated and even habitualized. This critique, however, does not engage an a lternate meaning of “productive”—the one pertaining to utility. Benjamin’s conspira tor focuses on completeness to the point of

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17 neglecting utility altogether, but a renewed concentration on utility, which is so closely related to action, perhaps offe rs the best method for all conspiracy theory—whether located in film, fiction, political rhetoric, or smoky back alleys—t o reclaim its critical distance and trade in its position of negative critique for a positive one. Notes 1 Patrick O’Donnell describes the process of co llection as indicative of the “overvoice,” which he explains as representing the “collat ion of coincidental tic and expression into communal grammar” (187). O’Donnell finds the overvoice in Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song writing that it signals “the in sertion of Mailer’s intention—more pointedly, his paranoid authorial presence—into events that ot herwise would appear to be random” (187). The overvoice designates a usef ul term for considering how authors of conspiratorial literature a nd historical conspiracy theo ries organize their collected information into a coherent narrative. The form of the overvoice can vary, but the presence of some kind of organization is crucial to the viabil ity of a conspiracy. Figure 1. Detail of George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stevens ca. 1979-90, 5th version Photo courtesy of The Quarterly Williamsburg Art Review (http://www.wburg.com/0202/arts/lombardi.html). 2 Figure 1 is a sample of Lombar di’s work. Hobbs explains that George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979-90 (24 1/8 x 48 1/4 in.) “focuses on the roles that cronyism and insider trading played in the fortunes of George W. Bush in the 1980s, before he became governor of Texas” (Lombardi 99). This representation of networked relationships is t ypical of Lombardi’s method of conveying the information he has collected. Often the arrangement of these collections implies conspiracy, as in this

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18 piece that links together domestic corporations and foreign politics to suggest a concerted effort to sustain George W. Bush’s financial interests.

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19 CHAPTER 4 PRODUCTION Here I want to offer some brief remarks on this flip-side of conspiracy theory—its qualities of production—before moving to a re ading. Many cultural st udies scholars tend to view conspiracy theory’s productive tr aits negatively, or at best receive them hesitantly. Indeed, such scholarship mirrors the reservations that marginalize conspiracy theory and theorists in contemporary culture. Such scholarship and attitudes focus on the production of fantasy in conspiracy theory—whi ch, to be sure, is a risk latent in any effort to map out secretive, perhaps even undecidable, relations—instead of considering its productive potential. As noted in my introduction, Richard Hofstadt er maintains that the paranoid style is characterized by a “leap into fantasy.” For Ho fstadter, the term “conspiracy theorist” is derogatory because, he maintains, “the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good” (5). Given his insistence that c onspiracy theories necessarily draw fictive conclusions from a body of fact, this conc lusion seems reasonable. But Hofstadter, writing before Watergate actualized so many fears about secrecy and corruption, wrongly dismisses conspiracy theory as completely ma rginal and irrelevant to the mainstream’s concerns. Evan Watkins echoes Hofstadte r’s apprehension, though less stridently, when he writes that conspiracy theories have th e unfortunate tendency of mistaking motive for general effect, thus propag ating unfounded conclusions.1 Perhaps more importantly, Hofstadter’s approach characterizes the dominant rhetoric regarding conspiracy

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20 throughout popular culture, marginalizing cons piracy theorists by aligning them with XFiles -like fantasy. Following Hofstadter, Koolhaas’s analysis of the Paranoid-Critical Method (PCM) also seems to align conspiratorial thinking w ith the production of irreality. However, for Koolhaas such an irreality is constructive. He describes this method as a “delirium of interpretation”: “Each fact, event, for ce, observation is caught in one system of speculation and ‘understood’ by th e afflicted individual in such a way that it absolutely confirms and reinforces his thesis—that is, the initial delusion which is his point of departure. The paranoiac always hits the nail on the head, no matter where the hammer blows fall ” (Koolhaas 201). Koolhaas continues to explain that the PC M has two steps: first, it concocts a grandios e paranoid theory; and second, it manipul ates the facts until they support one’s position (202). This pr ocess inverts the se quence of thoughts in Hofstadter’s “leap into fantasy,” and on th e surface it seems to confirm Hofstadter’s assertion that conspiracy theory demands an underlying manufacture of an irreal, logically untenable belief. But for Koolhaas this “delirium of interpretation” is a crucial method of reinforcing one’s consciousn ess of power and social relations. Mark Fenster, more sympathe tic to the aims of conspir acy theory than Hofstadter, explains conspiracy theory a nd production in terms of desire. He writes that “conspiracy theory is a practice of desire that moves ” (Fenster 95). The movement of this desire, Fenster asserts, produces “not only a circular, seemingly endl ess desire and proliferation of conspiracy-related texts, but also affectiv e intensities and flows, self-generating and forever flying through space and time” (95). The benefit of such a desire-production, though it may seem irrevocably self-reflexive and “circular,” is that it holds a utopian

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21 promise: the manufacture of conspiratorial literature becomes the means to an end—and for Fenster the end is the democratization of power relations—which can benefit a whole society. Unlike Hofstadter’s denunciations of conspiracy theory as a production of fantasy, Fenster’s focus on desi re redirects that production to the field of productivity. That Fenster, Koolhaas, and Watkins ar e in the minority of scholars who view conspiracy theory and theorizing as having the potential for a ra dical, even utopian impact reflects the ubiquity of scholarship that engages in ne gative critique. Indeed, my own scrutiny of the symbiosis between conspi racy theory and consumer society strikes the fashionable pose of the academic who asserts his primacy by emphasizing the failure of this or that theory, cultural practice, or ar twork. What remains, then, is to restore to conspiracy theory the productive potential wh ich Fenster, Koolhaas, and Watkins hint. Notes 1 In a passage examining claims that capital is a “motivated system” that conspires against the proletariat and Marx’s insistence on observing capitalism as a complicated system of social relations, Watkins writes th at “conspiracy theories short-circuit this complex structural analysis by immediately assigning to capitalist owners the motivation of exploiting workers rather th an of accumulating capital” (115).

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22 CHAPTER 5 MINING CONSPIRACY IN SILVER CITY : A CASE STUDY IN LYRICAL TRUTH AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION When gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) casts into Lake Arapahoe for one of his TV spots on the envi ronment, he never expected that he would reel in a dead body. Nor would he have im agined that the circumstances surrounding the body’s unceremonious dumping would implicate one of his largest campaign contributors in a migrant labor scandal. But this pure ly contingent event draws together the two figures—the candidate and the body of L zaro Huerta—and creates a space for one enterprising detective, the fo rmer investigative reporter Danny O’Brien (Danny Huston), to begin to conceive of the shady links betw een Pilager and his corr upting financier, Wes Benteen (Kris Kristofferson). From here, Danny employs his reporter-detective skills to wax conspiratorial about the relationship be tween the Pilager family and Benteen, along the way illustrating the trademark characteristics that I have outlined for the conspiracy theorist: collecting information, striving to ward a cognitive mapping of totality, and ultimately struggling with the paralysis of interpretation. Ostensibly, John Sayles’s Silver City (2004) takes its polemical aim at President George W. Bush. Trailers for the film hi ghlight Cooper’s performance of the clueless, ineloquent gubernatorial candidate, setting the film up as an extensive satire of the president who was running for re-election during the film’s release. In this respect, Cooper’s performance does not disappoint. In an impromptu press conference, Pilager speaks about his campaign agenda:

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23 I’m not raising taxes. We can’t just keep throwing the taxpayers’ hard-earned money at these perceived—you know, some of them, I admit, are real—so-called social problems. We have to get our priori ties straight. Educa tion is a priority. Health care is a priority. Uh, our economy is a priori ty. The environmental—the whole environmental, uh, arena—that’s a pr iority, big priority. Building new roads and maintaining the present—keeping the infrastructure in place, where it belongs—that’s a priority. Pilager’s lack of elocution is so painful th at his own father, Senator Judson Pilager, comments that his son is “a fucking disaster when he’s off the script.” And if the parallels to contemporary politics weren’t clea r, the background of one shot in the film shows defaced posters of the younger Bush sporting horns and a trickster’s goatee. Indeed, one of the film’s crew members re marks that after obse rving the 2000 election scandal in Florida while filming Sunshine State (2002), Sayles dedicated himself to “kick[ing] George Bush’s ass” ( Making of ). Of course if we accept that the purpose of the film is to derail Bush’s reelection campaign, we must surely classify it as a failure: as far as Silver City is concerned, the president made it through 2004 with his hindquarters unharmed. But Silver City ’s inability to offer a political obstacle to the Bu sh campaign is mirrored in its protagonist’s inability provide a clear link between Dickie Pilager and the money coming in from Wes Benteen’s underhanded Bentel Corporati on. The anxiety over extreme corporate lobbying power is reminiscent of the recent remake of The Manchurian Candidate as Benteen has provided more than half of the funds in Pilager’s campa ign war chest in the hope that Pilager will support legislation to deregulate environmental and industrial standards that affect the in terests of the Bentel Corpor ation’s family of businesses— Benteen Ranch, Benteen Realty, Benteen Medical Associates, Gold Mine Communications, BENagra, and Bentel Stadium. This relationship is markedly less ham-

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24 handed than Manchurian Global’s efforts to control, literally and allegorically, the mind of a presidential candidate, and accordingly Danny O’Brien’s conspiracy theory cannot aspire to the straightforwardness of Ma jor Ben Marco’s clear assessment of the relationship between corporate sponsor and puppet -politician. The complexity of the conspiracy theory that Danny O’Brien pursues is largely due to the challenges of contingency. Of course “contingency” has dual meanings here. One such meaning, adopted by Skip Willman in his formulation of “contingency theory,” indicates marginalization. Willman’s contingency theory refers to a concept of the social that “represents a new and widespread ‘strategy of containment’ in the effort to dispel the ‘paranoid’ fears raised by conspiracy theory ” (22). A negative cri tique of conspiracy theory, contingency theory posits “a smoothl y functioning social system subject to random deviations and deformations introduced by external corrupting forces” (Willman 28-29). In Willman’s sense of the word, “conti ngency” refers to the conspiracy theorist becoming incidental to the real goingson of society, and indeed Danny O’Brien’s voice—like Silver City itself—is ultimately silen ced by the very mechanism of marginalization found in Hofstadter’s outline of the paranoid style. But in another sense, O’Brien’s first struggle is to make sense of the contingency of the film’s opening scene— the incidental snagging of Pilager’s fi shing hook on Lzaro Huerta’s corpse. The challenge here is for O’Brien to establish that the incident is more than an aleatory gaffe on the campaign trail and to expose the inte nse meaning behind the event: Pilager himself is implicated, though unknowingly, in th e cover-up of a migrant worker’s death under dubious circumstances at the BENagra slaughterhouse.

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25 This second challenge of contingency de mands a significant degree of research from the conspiracy theorist. And, in a pl ot rather unorthodox for the genre, Sayles’s conspiracy theorist starts off on the conspirato r’s payroll. Pilager’s campaign advisor, the Karl Rove-like Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfu ss), suspects at the outset of the fishing incident that political foul play may be invol ved, confiding to a corone r, “There’s also the remote possibility that this is not a coincidence. I don’t think I’m being paranoid when I consider the possibility that one of our oppone nts had something to do with this.” Of course, Raven could not have foreseen that the incident is not a coin cidence, that one of his biggest allies, Benteen, was ultimately re sponsible for the body, and he turns to the help of an independent detective agency to i nvestigate the possibility of political motives behind Lzaro Huerta’s inconvenient resurrec tion. The case lands in Danny O’Brien’s lap, and he is charged with confronting th ree of Pilager’s pol itical enemies—Cliff Castleton, Casey Lyle, and his own sister Ma deline Pilager (Daryl Hannah)—to let them know that Chuck Raven has them under surveill ance. But after a brief examination of Pilager’s political c onnections, O’Brien shifts the fo cus of his investigation from Pilager’s enemies to his sh ady connections to Benteen. Here the process of collection begins in earnest, and it is no coincidence that O’Brien is warned of the Pilager-Benteen connection by Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), a guerrilla journalist whom O’Brien had befriended in his earlier days as a reporter. Paine runs an independent media outlet that O’Brien jokingly refers to as “kill-the-rich.com,” and he immediately senses his old friend’s new affiliations. When O’Brien seeks help with the list of names Raven has charged him with investigating, Paine pointedly asks, “You’re working for them now, aren’t you? Th em that run the whole deal?” Paine is,

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26 perhaps, the model conspiracy theorist, and after glossing on Castleton, Lyle, and Madeline Pilager, he introduces O’Brien to his pet project: the investigation of the Pilager family’s relationship to Wes Bentee n. Here O’Brien lear ns that Benteen had provided cargo planes for Oliver North duri ng Iran-Contra, that mo re recently he has been bringing in large numbers illegal immigrants to fill a labor shortage during a union strike, never once having been inspected by Im migration Services, and that he bailed out Pilager for his investment in the Silver City Development site, which lost its value when it was discovered to sit upon an abandoned mine that was releasing toxic heavy metals into the water table. Paine’s information takes the shape of a narrative that is geared primarily toward impugning Pilager and Bent een. Benjamin descri bes the process by which the collector inscribes meaning onto the collection: “All of these—the ‘objective’ data together with the other—come together, for the true collector, in every single one of his possessions, to form a whole magic encycl opedia, a world order, whose outline is the fate of its object” (207). Paine’ s narrative imagines the fate its objects—the revelation of a corrupt relationship between government and business—and O’Brien seizes on this narrative as the framework for his own investigation. Paine provides O’Brien with a solid “magic encyclopedia” of the Pilager-Benteen connection, leaving him to disc ern its mediation by Lzaro Huerta, and O’Brien starts right away at the trademark work of the de tective. With only a photograph of a tattoo on Lzaro Huerta’s hand and a list of possible cu lprits, O’Brien sets out to uncover the man’s identity and the circumstances under which his body emerged from Lake Arapahoe, dividing his time between backgr ound work on Lzaro Huerta and confronting Raven’s three suspects. What began as an as signment to intimidate Castleton, Lyle, and

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27 Madeline Pilager by signaling Chuck Raven’s su spicions of them has now turned into a much more penetrating exercise in mining. As the investigation co ntinues, O’Brien goes deeper and deeper into Lzaro Huerta’s stor y—surely deeper than Raven had ever hoped or planned—discovering Vince Esparza’s work as a coyote delivering illegal labor to BENagra’s fields and slaughter houses and Benteen Realty’s c onstruction sites. And as he delves further into Raven’ s list of suspects—in once case literally down into the earth following a miner’s tour given by Casey Lyle —he uncovers more of Pilager’s mercenary rise to power, including Raven’s maniacal dr ive to befriend and influence the Pilager family as well as Benteen’s reckless mining of the land he leased from Pilager that led to the contamination of the Silver City waters hed. But when he reemerges from his mining campaign, the product of O’Brien’s collecting efforts is much harder to measure and calculate than any silver or gold, and the next step for his conspiracy theory—the revelation of information in the service of political impact—remains a distant hope. As we have seen in Mark Lombardi’s traceries and in Corporal Al Melvin’s sketches in The Manchurian Candidate remake, mapping is a crucial step toward actualizing the political potential of a conspi racy theory, and indeed cognitive mapping is the very essence of conspiracy theory. It is important to remember that a map is only a figure of the broader process of cognitive mapping, but without the map’s fundamental organization of the collected materials, the cons piracy theorist’s efforts have little chance of affecting change. In Silver City we see O’Brien drawing up such a map to think the conspiratorial relationship re vealed by Lzaro Huerta’s resu rrection, literally sketching onto his living room wall the events and figures involved in the conspiracy he tries to

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28 piece together, connecting them with arching di rectional arrows to designate the flow of their relationships in a matrix that is comparable to Lombardi’s drawings. O’Brien’s walls have served similar ma pping functions in his earlier reporting work, and this connect-the-dots scene illust rates his drive to di scern surreptitious relationships. The scene in O’Brien’s livi ng room takes place as he is still piecing together his own narrative of Lzaro Huerta’s relationship to Pilager and Benteen, adding names and directional arrows to the wall in an effort to break the veil of contingency that enshrouds the event at Lake Arapahoe. Figure 2. Danny O’Brien ruminates on the early stages of hi s cognitive mapping. Crucially, he adds Vincent Esparza’s name to the mix and links it to Benteen’s. This representation of the conspiracy narrative he lps O’Brien, as well as the film’s audience, visualize the possible relationships that underlie Pilager’s “pro-growth,” antienvironment policies and their connections to Benteen through the very body of Lzaro Huerta. This intense focus on the particular s of the Pilager-Benteen conspiracy theory,

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29 while critical to its potentia l to thwarting Pilager’s gubern atorial aspirations, validates Jameson’s assertion that conspiracy theory is a “degraded” form of cognitive mapping because it tends to prioritize representations of localized malfeasance over those of totality. As in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate the problem of Danny O’Brien’s cognitive mapping is really a problem of scale because it substitutes local totality and ethics for broad totality and politics. It’s worth noting here that while O’Brie n’s mapping effort may be a “degraded” form of cognitive mapping, the Sayles oeuvre taken as a whole, de monstrates a fidelity to the project of mapping totality, illuminating many of the thematics that we find in Silver City Matewan Sayles’s 1987 film about the 1920 struggles to unionize a West Virginia mining town, involves the exploitati on of labor and the necessity of collective action in order to protect la borers. Union organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) strains to keep the Mingo County laborers from inte rnal discrimination—the workers’ identities as Appalachian whites, Italian immigrants, a nd African Americans put them in a state of perilous discord—by constantly reminding them that “There ain’t but two sides of this world: them that work and them that don’t. You work. They don’t.” In Lone Star his 1996 film about a father-son pair of law officer s in a Texas border town, Sayles displays his interest in hybridity, mapping the lines between nations and cultures across spatial and human bodies. Otis Payne, the owner of a bar, has an exhibit of the Black Seminoles, a band of hybridized refugees who liv ed in the Everglades during Spain’s rule of Florida; his personal collection of th e Black Seminoles’ artifacts stands in as a microcosm of the cultural and racial tran sfers that take place across the MexicanAmerican borders throughout the film. Sunshine State his film about commercial and

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30 residential development in two of Florida’s coastal communities, represents the social and environmental perils of a system that pr ivileges the economic pr ofits of growth over more traditional values of continuity. In one scene, residents of the bourgeois Delrona Beach community hold a parade that reenacts the Spanish conquest of the land they now occupy, ironically noting the corporate sponsor ship of their festiv al rites as if to acknowledge the connection of two imperial pow ers: the Spanish and the strip mall. These three fundamental themes—labor ri ghts, immigrant rights, and development— converge in Silver City to demonstrate Sayles’s tota lizing vision that recognizes the themes’ intimate relationships. Regardless of its reluctance to conceive of totality, Danny O’Brien’s conspiracy theory still faces the more immediate obstacl e of the contingent nature of the Lake Arapahoe event. In other words, his ma pping efforts do not yet prove a link between Pilager, Benteen, and Lzaro Huerta that is conclusive enough to bring Raven’s campaign machine to its knees. Through no failure in hi s detective’s collecting skills, O’Brien has arrived at an information impasse. Having interviewed each of Pilager’s primary enemies and heard their stories of his trea cherous incompetence, and having followed every lead on Lzaro Huerta to discover th at he died in a slaughterhouse that flouted safety regulations because its illegal la borers couldn’t address their needs through appropriate legal channels, Danny O’Brie n finds himself knowi ng that Benteen’s intentions for Pilager are depraved, but also knowing that he will likely never be able to prove it. O’Brien’s impotence here defies the knowledge-as-power th ematic that we will return to later in Richard Donner’s Conspiracy Theory (1997), seemingly leaving him with two choices: he can con tinue collecting, risking the para lysis of interpretation, or he

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31 can quit the investigation altogether, ensu ring that the information would never be exposed. Sayles does, however, share with the audience a scene that provides damning evidence of the corrupt lobbyi ng relationship, although the sc ene, by its very nature, precludes O’Brien’s access. The camera pa ns across a sweeping mountain vista, slowly focusing on the two men, sans entourage, riding horseback across an open field. BENTEEN. Look at a map, they got th e half the West under lock and key. PILAGER. They? BENTEEN. Bureau of Land Management Forest Service, national parks, the State….It’s like a treasure chest wa iting to be opened, only there’s a 500-pound bureaucrat sitting on it. PILAGER. Well, I’m a small government man. BENTEEN. I know. That’s why we chose you, son. Benteen continues to lecture Pilager, who tries his best to keep up, on the virtues of privatization and designates him “one of the poi nt men in the fight to liberate [natural] resources.” This conversation concretely indicts the wicked lobbying arrangement between the two men. Howeve r, it is beyond O’Brien’s power s of collection, leaving his mapping efforts unrealized. Without a record of this exchange a record akin to Nixon’s elusive White House tapes, O’Brien’s conspira torial narrative will remain inconclusive, unverifiable. He has to continue searching for a record of similar exchanges if his collection is to have meaning. However, the film’s conclusion remains hopeful, as O’Brien manages a curious negotiation of deferral here, ne ither persisting in the paralysis of interpretation nor resigning his collection to th e garbage dump of dead conspi racy theories. Having been fired from the private investigation firm for digging deeper into the mines than his clients desired, O’Brien himself has no means to continue collecting data on Pilager and

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32 Benteen. Indeed, he tells a friend that his fi rst order of business as an unemployed man is “to repaint [his] living room,” signaling his ab andonment of the mapping project. But he has found a way to impart his collection proj ect to others in the hope that Benteen’s responsibility—and accordingly Pilager’s shady relationship to the Bentel Corporation— will be exposed to the public. In one of the closing scenes, we follow a staffer from Mitch Paine’s guerrilla journalism outfit in to the office, where she finds an anonymous message wedged between the door and the doorframe. Over her should we see a map of the Silver City development site, with dire ctions to the open mine shaft where miners dumped toxic materials and Vincent Espar za dumped Lzaro Huerta’s body. “Weird. ‘Silver City,’” she says, reading the note’s cont ents. “Someone left us a treasure map.” Of course, this map is altogether different from the map on O’Brien’s living room wall, prioritizing spacial relationships over social ones, but nonethele ss it will plant a seed in the alternative media, seizing on Paine’s earl ier suggestion of a “trickle up” effect in which alternative media sources do the legwor k on scandalous storie s before the reports filter into mainstream outlets. Accordingly, O’Brien’s final movement on the case is not an act not of deferral of action, but of deference to another organization that might succeed where his collecting efforts failed. Regardless of O’Brien’s ultimate failure to expose the profound implications of Lzaro Huerta’s death and resurrection, he doe s apprehend the truth that underlies the Lake Arapahoe event: he is precise in his dietrologia In this way, he is a student of what Don DeLillo calls the “lyrically true,” that which is “unprovably true, remotely and inadmissibly true but not completely unhistor ical, not without some nuance of authentic inner narrative” ( Underworld 172). Lyrical truth, as we will see, expresses conviction in

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33 the absence of substantial evidence. It is the mechanism that allows a conspiratorialminded person to “know” that the moon la nding was a hoax designed to embarrass the Soviets or that Hitler escaped Berlin to live the rema inder of his life in peaceful anonymity in South America. Of course, th ese examples illustrate the Hofstadter-like qualities of conspiracy theory that lyrical truth can help cr eate and sustain, but we can also imagine the usefulness of ly rical truth to our own exercise s in conspiracy (or critical) theory when we encounter an impasse in information. In Silver City lyrical truth bridges the information gaps that Danny O’Brien a nd Mitch Paine strive to overcome. The audience, having observed the horseback conve rsation between Pilager and Benteen, can verify the empirical truth of O’Brien’s conspi ratorial narrative, but for O’Brien and his associates at Paine’s online news site, that truth remains only lyrical, detached from any viable concrete political applica tion. After all, lyrica l truth would bear little resistance to the scrutiny it would encounter if it were to be the primar y method of substantiating a conspiracy theory because it relies on c onviction instead of demonstrable evidence. Lyrical truth operates as a mode of produc tion. Like Koolhaas’s assessment of the Paranoid-Critical Method, the epistemology of lyrical truth demands that one begin with a general sense of the world and then interpret the world according to the paradigms of the preconceived lyrical truth. As we have seen, Koolhaas’s PCM produces a set of knowledge in accordance with one’s initial thesis, and this is no less true for lyrical truth. One key difference between the two methodologi es, however, is that lyrical truth has no pretenses about verifiability. While the PCM c ontorts data to substa ntiate the paranoiac’s thesis, a lyrical truth confirms the thesis mo re loosely. To return to the example set on Danny O’Brien’s living room wall, lyrical truth does not conn ect the conspira torial dots

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34 with indisputable evidence, but rather it juxtaposes those dots in a way that feels right. Lyrical truth, then, is a matter of faith. The declaration of faith that marks lyrical truth is a crucial step toward transferring conspiracy theory from a consumption-orient ed enterprise to a proactively productive one. This shift toward a positive critique th at forges a productive synthesis of knowledge and action is a radical departure from the complacent consumption of information that often leads to the paralysis of interp retation. Indeed, Jean Baudrillard, in The Mirror of Production argues that “productivist discourse” must be appropr iated from the discourse of the political economy and put to work “i n the name of an authentic and radical productivity” (17). This “radi cal productivity” can be set in motion by what he calls the “the mirror of production,” a process whic h, like Lacan’s mirror stage, brings the individual to self-consciou sness through his recognition of himself as embodying the transformative power of the “product ivist discourse” (Ba udrillard 19-20). The productive power of lyrical truth lie s in its ability to bridge gaps in information. Danny O’Brien’s commitment to lyrical truth allows him to circumvent his inability to observe the horseback excha nge between Pilager and Benteen, thereby facilitating his power to feel the truth in the absence of the means to prove it. O’Brien may not have arrived at the consciousness of his own transforma tive power to produce, but nevertheless he employs that productive capacity toward assembling the yield of his information collection in a meaningful—a nd perhaps politically potent—formation. Though the very lyrical, and thus necessar ily unprovable, nature of his collection undermines its menace as a conspiracy theory, O’Brien’s gathering of information succeeds in the standards of the collector. Benjamin concludes his study of collecting,

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35 ruminating that “perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the pe rson who collects can be described this way: he ta kes up the struggle against disp ersion. Right from the start, the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which the things of the world are found” (211). Moving, as we have seen, to tie the collector to the allegorist, Benjamin continues to explain that the allegorist “has given up the attempt to elucidate things through research into their properties and relations. He disl odges things from their context and, from the outset, relies on his pr ofundity to illuminate their meaning” (211). It is precisely the profundity of lyrical truth that O’Brien relies on to animate his study in dietrologia and in using this methodology, O’Brien becomes an allegorist just as much as a collector. Though Danny O’Brien’s collecting effort s are stunted by an unfortunate information gap, we need not conclude th at all conspiratorial collecting efforts necessarily end in a similar ne gotiation with the paralysis of interpretation. O’Brien’s inability to mine evidence of a malfeasan t relationship between Pilager and Benteen damns to failure his efforts as a conspirato rial-minded politico. However, his successes in “the struggle against dispersion” demonstr ate the benefits of his methodology of lyrical truth: in the absence of concrete evidence, we may still have faith in our convictions. Indeed, lyrical truth is a cr itical bridging mechanism that mediates the stages of production for a conspiracy theory: it marks th e passage from an inchoate suspicion to a fully developed, politically poten t indictment of conspiracy. Silver City concludes in this intermediate stage, leaving its audience with only the hope that Mitch Paine’s media outlet will complete the development of O’Brien’s conspiratorial collection.

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36 As a brief exercise in contrast, we can look to Fernando Meirelles’s The Constant Gardener (2005) for its illustration of the production of a conspiracy theory. The story begins with the deaths of two conspiracy theorists, Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) and Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kound), who we later le arn were investigating a pharmaceutical company for testing its tuberculosis drugs on poor and sick Africans. From this point forward we observe the awakening of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), Tessa’s husband. Justin, a British diplomat assigned to Kenya, en ters the film as a figure of the apathetic. He feels powerless to remedy the great su ffering, poverty, and sickness that surround him, unaware of his wife’s secret plans to expose the KDH pharmaceutical conglomerate’s exploitation of unsuspecting test subjects. But after Tessa’s murder, the seed of conspiratorial suspici on takes root in Justin’s mind. Slowly he perceives a lyrical truth explaining her death, and he follows that lyrical truth to its concrete incarnation as a conspiracy theory as he tracks down the leads Tessa left behind. Ultimately he is killed for asking the same questions his wife di d, but not before he has registered enough evidence to indict, even after his death, KDH’s two conspiracies : to exploit African test subjects and to cover-up by way of murder Te ssa, Arnold, and, indeed, Justin himself. The Constant Gardener displays the three steps of producing a viable conspiracy theory—inchoate suspicion, lyrical truth, a nd concrete conspiracy theory—whereas Silver City leaves that process incomplete. However, regardless of the incompleteness of Danny O’Brien’s conspiracy theory, his work demonstrates the necessity of lyrica l truth in the collector’s “struggle against dispersion.” And the methodology of lyrica l truth marks a crucial intersection of consumption and production. In conspiracy theory, it is the hinge that joins the process

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37 of collecting to the process of assembling the collected materials into a meaningful formation. While the conspiracy theory may enter the market as a commodity for consumption, as Birchall has suggested, this lyrical truth also endows it with a productive capacity that holds the promise of breaking th e conspiracy theorist’s flirtation with the paralysis of interpretation.

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38 CHAPTER 6 CONCLUSION: TOWARD A POSITIVE CRITIQUE IN (CONSPIRACY) THEORY I have made the focus of this paper the act and behavior of conspiracy theorizing, but the act of conspiring itself merits some attention here, especially in the context of cultural production and consumption and in the discourse of positive and negative critiques. Whereas conspiracy theorizing is an act of produc tion toward its own consumption as a commodity, the act of conspiring is productive in that it often has significant consequences. The difference between the two is fundamentally the difference between positive and negative critique : conspiring is an act of engagement, of commitment; conspiracy theorizing is an act of deferral, of avoiding the risk—and potential gains—associated with forwar ding and executing an agenda by stagnating within the paralysis of interpretation. In other words, conspiring is prescriptive, and conspiracy theorizing is descri ptive, largely unwilling to enga ge the field it exposes in a proactive way. We can take as an example of this productiv ity the conspiring of even so detestable a figure as Joe McCarthy. McCarthy’s c onspiracy—and, indeed, it was his conspiracy against the Left instead of a Communist conspiracy agai nst the U.S. government—very effectively demonized sympathy for Comm unism. By discouraging people from considering the socialist paradigm to be a viable, civilized system, McCarthyism helped strengthen the position of capitalism in the post-war decades. Though the aims of McCarthy’s conspiracy are irredeemably wick ed and despicable, we cannot deny that his conspiring was productive—perhaps more produc tive than any of the many justifiably

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39 negative critiques of his actio ns. Of course, I’m not propos ing that Leftists should hold secret caucuses to plan the persecution of anyone who opposes progressive platforms, but rather I think we can learn from the pr oductive stance of someone like McCarthy, who can remind us of the need to abandon the prac tice of (often reactiv e) negative critique. Indeed, the conspiratorial n ecessity of collective action is precisely the lesson Jameson draws from his reading of The Parallax View : “the conspiracy wins […] not because it has some special form of ‘power’ that the vict ims lack, but simply because it is collective and the victims, taken one by one in their isolation, are not” ( TGA 66). Very generally, the practice of conspir acy theorizing limits itself to isolated, passive descriptions of conspiracy, and it endorses a dichotomy between description/interpretation and action, between deferral and productivit y. What’s worse is that conspiratorial literature ve ry often indicates that such passive descriptions, the mere possession of secret knowledge about a conspiracy, will somehow, vaguely, bring that conspiracy to an end without any accompa nying action. An example of this kind of knowledge-as-power thematic come s from Richard Donner’s film Conspiracy Theory Here, Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gi bson) possesses knowledge of Dr. Jonas’s (Patrick Stewart) secret government-funded mind control progr am, and Jerry’s knowledge provokes such an excessive response from Jonas that Jona s’s diabolical program collapses under the scrutiny of other government agen cies. Indeed, the logic of Conspiracy Theory relies on the inferred link between pa ssive knowledge and active e xposure, which Eve Sedgwick illuminates: “whatever account it may gi ve of its own motivation, paranoia is characterized by placing, in practice, and extraordinary stress on the efficacy of knowledge per se—knowledge in the form of exposure” (138).

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40 Of course, I would not presume to deni grate knowledge as an insignificant application of power, but the ultimate message of Conspiracy Theory —that the possession of knowledge is enough to bring about change—cultivates and justifies complacency. Such a deferral of action confin es most examples of conspiracy theorizing to a state of non-productivity while the objects of the investigati ons, the conspirators themselves, more significantly affect the world around them. What I am suggesting here is that the pr actice of conspiracy theorizing—and this applies to the methodologies of critical theory, to o, as it represents a certain distinct enterprise in dietrologia1—has great potential benefits to social progress. However, conspiracy theorizing will remain an ineff ectual negative critique until it prescribes collective action. Perhap s one of the best recent examples of an appropriate relationship between description and action come s from Sam Green’s documentary The Weather Underground (2003). Green details the Weathermen ’s beginnings, noting that they were deeply rooted in the social activism of the late 1960s—many were pa rt of the leadership of the Students for a Democratic Society, and all wanted to call atte ntion to the racism latent in U.S. policies concerning the Vietnam War—before they militarized and went underground to continue their bombing campaign to raise awareness of social injustice. The Weathermen project had its share of flaws, which Green’s documentary dutifully uncovers. However, what is also highlighted in the film, but often left unexamined in both conservative and liber al critiques of the Weathermen, was the members’ courage to take risks in making a positive critique. Instead of languishing under the critical methodology of description/interpretation as most conspiracy theorizing does, the Weathermen applied their knowledge to more than mere description, thereby

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41 breaking out of the paralysis of interpre tation. What is most radical about the Weathermen project is not that it imposed violence on symbols of imperialism and racism, but that it synthesized its knowledge with an action th at had the potential to bring about change. This synthesis of knowledge a nd action is greatly l acking on the Left, and it is the necessary next step for conspiracy th eory if conspiracy theorizing will ever pose a significant challenge to the conspira cy that is contemporary life itself. Notes 1 In Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism? Slavoj Žiek writes that especially on the Left, “the moment one shows the sli ghtest inclination to engage in political projects that aim seriously to challenge the existi ng order, the answer is immedi ately: ‘Benevolent as it is, this will necessarily end in a new Gulag!’” (3-4 ). Later, he says th at the effect of this deferral of action is that academics—and part icularly those engaged in cultural studies— “shift from an engagement with real work ing-class culture to academic radical chic” (Žiek 226). To the negative critique inhere nt in this mode of critical theory, Žiek proposes a return to the Leninist model: “the Leninist stance was to take a leap, throwing oneself into the paradox of the situation, seiz ing the opportunity and intervening, even if the situation was ‘premature’” (114).

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42 LIST OF REFERENCES Baudrillard, Jean. The Mirror of Production 1975. Trans. Mark Poster. St. Louis, MO: Telos Press, 1975. Benjamin, Walter. The Arcades Project Trans. Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Ed. Rolf Tiedemann. 1982. Cambridge, MA: Belknap of Harvard UP, 2004. Birchall, Clare. “The Commodifi cation of Conspiracy Theory.” Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America Ed. Peter Knight. New York, NY: New York UP, 2002. 233-53. Conspiracy Theory Dir. Richard Donner. Perf. Mel Gibson, Julia Roberts. 1997. DVD. Warner Brothers, 2005. Constant Gardener, The Dir. Fernando Meirelles. Perf Ralph Feinnes, Rachel Weisz. 2005. DVD. Focus Features, 2006. DeLillo, Don. Libra 1988. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1991. ---. Underworld 1997. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2003. Eyes Wide Shut Dir. Stanley Kubrick. Perf. Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman. 1999. DVD. Warner Brothers, 2001. Fenster, Mark. Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture Minneapolis, MN: U Minnesota P, 1999. Hofstadter, Richard. “The Paranoid St yle in American Politics.” 1964. The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1964. Hutcheon, Linda. The Politics of Postmodernism 1989. New York, NY: Routledge, 2003. Jameson, Fredric. “Cognitive Mapping.” 1988. The Jameson Reader Ed. Michael Hardt and Kathi Weeks. Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2004. 277-287. ---. Foreword. The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge 1979. By JeanFranois Lyotard. Trans. Geoff Benn ington and Brian Massumi. Minneapolis, MN: U Minnesota P, 1984. vii-xxi. ---. The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cine ma and Space in the World System Indianapolis, IN: Indiana UP, 1992.

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43 ---. Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism 1991. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. Koolhaas, Rem. Delirious New York: A Retroac tive Manifesto for Manhattan New York, NY: Oxford UP, 1978. Lombardi, Mark. Mark Lombardi: Global Networks Essayist and curator Robert Hobbs. New York, NY: Independ ent Curators International, 2003. ---. George W Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979—90, 5th version 1999. Independent Curators International, New York, NY. Photo courtesy of The Quarterly Williamsburg Art Review Lonestar Dir. John Sayles. Perf. Chris Cooper, Kris Kristofferson, Matthew McConaughey. 1996. DVD. Turner Home Entertainment, 1999. Making of Silver City, The Dir. Donnie L. Betts. Perf. John Sayles, Maggie Renzi, Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss. Special feature of the Silver City DVD. Anarchist’s Convention Films, 2004. Manchurian Candidate, The Dir. Jonathan Demme. Perf. Denzel Washington, Meryl Streep, Liev Schreiber. 2004. DVD. Paramount, 2004. Marx, Karl. Grundrisse 1973. Trans. Martin Nicolaus. New York, NY: Penguin, 1993. Matewan Dir. John Sayles. Perf. Chris Coope r, James Earl Jones. 1987. DVD. Hallmark Studios, 2001. Melley, Timothy. Empire of Conspiracy: The Culture of Paranoia in Postwar America Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2000. O’Donnell, Patrick. “Engendering Para noia in Contemporary Narrative.” boundary 2 19.1 (1992): 181-204. Sedgwick, Eve. Touching Feeling: Affe ct, Pedagogy, Performativity Durham, NC: Duke UP, 2003. Silver City Dir. John Sayles. Perf. Chris Cooper, Richard Dreyfuss, Thora Birch. 2004. DVD. Anarchist’s Convention Films, 2004. Sunshine State Dir. John Sayles. Perf. Angela Bassett, Edie Falco, Timothy Hutton, Mary Steenburgen. 2002. DVD. Sony Pictures, 2002. Watkins, Evan. Everyday Exchanges: Marketwork and Capitalist Common Sense Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1998. Weather Underground, The Dir. Sam Green. 2003. DVD. New Video Group, 2004.

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44 Willman, Skip. “Spinning Paranoia: The Ideo logies of Conspiracy and Contingency in Postmodern Culture.” Conspiracy Nation: The Politics of Paranoia in Postwar America Ed. Peter Knight. New York, NY: New York UP, 2002. 21-39. Žiek, Slavoj. Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?: Five Interventions in the (Mis)use of a Notion 2002. New York, NY: Verso, 2002.

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45 BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH Wesley Beal received a Bach elor of Arts degree in English from Hendrix College in 2004. This thesis is the culmination of his work toward the Master of Arts degree that he received in 2006. His plans for doctoral work are to move away from studies of conspiracy toward a dissertation that examines figures of the urban and rural in American literature of the twentiet h century in an effort to bring Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City across the Atlantic.


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Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0014344/00001

Material Information

Title: Conspiracy Theory and Consumer Practice: Collecting and the Paralysis of Interpretation in American Film
Physical Description: Mixed Material
Copyright Date: 2008

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Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
System ID: UFE0014344:00001

Permanent Link: http://ufdc.ufl.edu/UFE0014344/00001

Material Information

Title: Conspiracy Theory and Consumer Practice: Collecting and the Paralysis of Interpretation in American Film
Physical Description: Mixed Material
Copyright Date: 2008

Record Information

Source Institution: University of Florida
Holding Location: University of Florida
Rights Management: All rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
System ID: UFE0014344:00001


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CONSPIRACY THEORY AND CONSUMER PRACTICE:
COLLECTING AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION INT AMERICAN
FILM















By

WESLEY BEAL


A THESIS PRESENTED TO THE GRADUATE SCHOOL
OF THE UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA IN PARTIAL FULFILLMENT
OF THE REQUIREMENTS FOR THE DEGREE OF
MASTER OF ARTS

UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA


2006































Copyright 2006

by

Wesley Beal
















ACKNOWLEDGMENTS

I begin with a word of thanks to my teachers and mentors. Phillip Wegner, Ed

White, and Mark Fenster have given me unwarranted support for this proj ect, and they

have offered much in the way of constructive criticism for where this proj ect can go from

here. I also thank Susan Hegeman and David Leverenz of the University of Florida and

Kevin Asman, Rebecca Resinski, and Alex Vernon of Hendrix College, whose work and

pedagogy have influenced me throughout my undergraduate and master's training. My

debt to each of these mentors is incalculable, and I give them the highest praise I could

apply to any teacher or colleague: their passions and ideas continue to inspire me as I

move through different stages of my education.

I must also thank my friends and colleagues who have helped shape this proj ect.

Principally, I express my gratitude for Joel Winkelman, who first taught me that the word

"consume" is best used as an intransitive, for Evan Rogers, who is still trying to convince

me that the moon landing was a hoax designed to intimidate the Soviets, and for Nicole

LaRose and Michael Vastola, who have slowly converted me from the seductive dark arts

of poststructuralism to the moral high ground of materialism. Finally, I owe my deepest

thanks to Courtney Eason, who calmed me when the weight of these ideas wore me

down.





















TABLE OF CONTENTS


page

ACKNOWLEDGMENT S ............. ...... .............. iii...


LI ST OF FIGURE S .............. ...............v.....


AB STRAC T ................ .............. vi


CHAPTER


1 INTRODUCTION ................. ...............1.......... ......


Notes ................. ...............3.................


2 ON FORM .............. ...............4.....


Notes ................. ...............7.................


3 CONSUMPTION .............. ...............8.....


Notes ................. ...............17.................


4 PRODUC TION ................. ...............19........... ....


Notes ................. ...............21.................


5 MINING CONSPIRACY IN SILVER CITY: A CASE STUDY IN LYRICAL
TRUTH AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION ................. ................. 22


6 CONCLUSION: TOWARD A POSITIVE CRITIQUE IN (CONSPIRACY)
THEORY ................. ...............3 8..............


N otes ................ ...............41......... ......


LIST OF REFERENCES ........_................. ........_._ .........4


BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH .............. ...............45....

















LIST OF FIGURES


Figure


page


1 Detail of George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stevens ca. 1979-90, 5th
version ............... ................. 17........ .....

2 Danny O'Brien ruminates on the early stages of his cognitive mapping. ................28
















Abstract of Thesis Presented to the Graduate School
of the University of Florida in Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree of Master of Arts

CONSPIRACY THEORY AND CONSUMER PRACTICE:
COLLECTING AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION INT AMERICAN
FILM

By

Wesley Beal

May 2006

Chair: Phillip E. Wegner
Major Department: English

The ubiquity of the conspiratorial worldview is nowhere more evident than in

American fi1m. Such fi1ms have helped the viewing public conceive of totality in the

past, as in a spate of conspiratorial films that flourished after the Watergate scandal, and

indeed they serve a similar function today, facilitating American filmgoers' cognitive

mapping of the social totality after 9/1 1.

But though conspiracy theory nobly creates a space for this exercise in cognitive

mapping, it also reinforces the market ideology of consumption. It does so by positing

itself, the practice of conspiracy theorizing, as a consumer exercise that is to be

habitualized. The problem with its relationship to consumption is that conspiracy theory,

while often ostensibly challenging the status quo, tends through its formal attributes to

cultivate a habit of negative critique and foster a behavior of complacent consumption

that sustains the market paradigms of consumerism. This problem is not a moral one









about complicity in the system of commodity consumerism, but it is a pragmatic crisis,

because this process of consumption risks sinking conspiracy theory into a cycle of

deferral that I am calling the paralysis of interpretation.

John Sayles's Silver City (2004) exemplifies the conspiracy theorist's predicament.

Its protagonist, Danny O'Brien, must engage in a process in which he collects

information for his conspiratorial investigation, but his collecting defers any meaningful

action throughout the film, leaving the conspirers untouched. Though O'Brien's

conspiracy theorizing fails in its drive toward public exposure of the conspiracy, we can

learn from his methodology of lyrical truth, which allows him to persist in his

conspiratorial stance even when his collecting efforts encounter an information impasse.

Ultimately, this paralysis of interpretation is not just a problem for conspiracy

theorists, but for critical theorists, as well. Practitioners of both fields need to recognize

that the knowledge created by their theorizations is not enough to bring about social

transformation. Instead, these theorists must recognize that the truly radical proj ect is

one that synthesizes knowledge with an action that has the potential to bring about

change. This synthesis is the necessary next step for conspiracy theory if conspiracy

theorizing will ever pose a significant challenge to the conspiracy that is contemporary

life itself.















CHAPTER 1
INTTRODUCTION

If its prevalence were ever in doubt, conspiracy theory has reasserted itself in recent

years as the standby means for Americans to structure the world around them. The

rhetoric of conspiracy has pervaded explanations of President George W. Bush' s

elections in 2000 and 2004, the shadowy plots leading up to September 1Iti', and the

United States' path to war in Iraq. But politics aside, the ubiquity of the conspiratorial

worldview is nowhere more evident than in American film. As Richard Hofstadter

famously attests, conspiracy theorizing reaches far back into American history, and more

recent scholarship has focused on the preponderance of conspiratorial themes in

contemporary film. In the opening chapter of The Geopolitical Aesthetic: Cinema and

Space in the World System, Fredric Jameson catalogues and critiques the conspiratorial

films of the 1970s and early 1980s, surveying Alan J. Pakula's The ParallaxPPP~~~~PPP~~~PPP View (1974),

All the President 's 2en (1976), and David Cronenberg' s Videodronse (1983). This spate

of overtly conspiracy-themed films can easily be attributed to the fallout from Watergate

and to renewed efforts to discern, perhaps even redefine, the relationships between the

individual and the social in light of Nixon's cover-up.

The post 9/11 milieu hosts a similar resurgence in conspiratorial films, ranging

from trenchant documentaries to formulaic movies to richly complicated films. Several

of the documentaries-Michael Moore' s FahFFFFFFFF~~~~~~~~~renhi 9 11 (2004) and Jeremy Earp's and

Sut Jalley' s Hijacking Catastrophe: 9 11, Fear, and the Selling ofAnzerican Empire

(2004), for example--deal explicitly with the putative conspiracies surrounding 9/11, but










many other documentaries and films incorporate conspiratorial narratives that ostensibly

avoid the subject matter and trauma of the 9/11 attacks.l The post 9/11 surge in

conspiratorial films is undeniable, and at a base level it can be explained by the need for

the individual to understand his relation to what may seem like a new, more threatening

kind of totality. Jameson calls this method of situating the individual within the social

the process of cognitive mapping, and the impulse to provide this kind of social mapping

radiates throughout the conspiratorial thematics of many post 9/11 fi1ms.

Critics of the conspiracy theory genre have justly considered conspiratorial

literatures in terms of fantasy, agency, social totality, and political efficacy. Hofstadter

marginalizes conspiracy theory and theorists by accusing them of making a "leap into

fantasy," which he explains is "the curious leap in imagination that is always made at

some critical point in the recital of events" (37). Timothy Melley characterizes the

literary impulse to portray conspiratorial narratives as representations of "agency panic,"

which he describes as "an intense anxiety about an apparent loss of autonomy, the

conviction that one's actions are being controlled by someone else or that one has been

'constructed' by powerful, external agents" (vii). Other scholars have seen conspiracy

theory in a more positive, constructive light. Jameson argues that conspiratorial texts

"constitute an unconscious, collective effort at trying to Eigure out where we are and what

landscapes and forces confront us in a late twentieth century whose abominations are

heightened by their concealment and their bureaucratic impersonality" (Geopolitical

Aesthetic 3). Mark Fenster suggests that conspiracy theories carry a democratizing

potential that he explains as "a utopian desire to understand and confront the

contradictions and conflicts of contemporary capitalism" (1 16).









To this conversation I will add another dimension to the theorizing of conspiracy

theory by arguing that it reinforces the market ideology of consumption. It does so by

positing itself, the practice of conspiracy theorizing, as a consumer exercise that is to be

habitualized. With references to contemporary American films and other literatures, I

will map out these critiques of the conspiracy theory genre, and I will explore how

conspiracy theories, while often ostensibly challenging the status quo, tend through their

formal attributes to cultivate a habit of negative critique and foster a behavior of

complacent consumption that sustains the market paradigms of consumerism.

Ultimately, my argument is not a moral one that decries conspiracy theory for its

relationship to commodity consumerism. Instead, my critique is pragmatic, outlining the

process through which conspiracy theory risks sinking into a cycle of deferral that I am

calling the paralysis of interpretation.

Notes

SThe list of post 9/11 conspiratorial literatures is indeed extensive, but a quick survey
will help highlight their ubiquity. Conspiratorial documentaries include Mark Achbar's
The Corporation (2004), Robert Greenwald's Outfoxed: Rupert2~urdoch 's War on
Journalism (2004), and Sam Green's and Bill Siegel's The Weather Underground (2003).
Formulaic renderings of conspiratorial narratives include National Treasure (2004) and
The Interpreter (2005). More complicated conspiratorial plots have appeared in Jonathan
Demme' s remake of The Manchurian Candidate (2004), in Christopher Nolan' s Batman
Begins (2005), and in Fernando Meirelles's The Constant Gardener (2005). Outside of
the film arena, readers have consumed Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code (2003) to the
point that it became a media phenomenon, and fans of the novel await Ron Howard' s
film rendering, scheduled for release in spring of 2006.















CHAPTER 2
ON FORM

Any critique of a genre necessarily entails--or assumes--both a discussion of

formal attributes and a periodization. For conspiracy theory, such a discussion is

particularly vexed, in part because the nature of its content and form crosses so many of

the traditional features of realism, modernism, and postmodernism. The practice of

conspiracy theorizing, though it is found in Mason-scares in the American eighteenth

century and is a theoretical concern for Marx, has been considered by many to be a

symptom of postmodernity, perhaps even its quintessence. The faithfulness with which

Thomas Pynchon, Don DeLillo, and others have represented conspiratorial thinking

throughout their careers bolsters the positions of those who would root conspiracy theory

firmly in the postmodern camp.

But conspiracy theorizing signals much more than postmodern paranoia. In his

book Conspiracy Theories: Secrecy and Power in American Culture, Mark Fenster

argues against such a position, writing that "the conspiracy narrative needs to be

recognized for what it is: a utopian desire to understand and confront the contradictions

and conflicts of contemporary capitalism" (116). Fenster' s argument here is that

conspiratorial narratives aim to discover and represent something like a grand narrative.

Similarly, Jameson, outlining his theory of cognitive mapping, writes that conspiracy

theory is "a degraded figure of the total logic of late capital, a desperate attempt to

represent the latter' s system" ("Cognitive Mapping" 286). Both Fenster and Jameson









identify the key motive behind conspiratorial literature: the exposure of totality and the

construction of a grand narrative that awaits interpretation.

Thinking of conspiracy theory in terms of its insistence on a grand narrative thus

seems to link it to modernism. Jameson grants that postmodernism accommodates an

array of cultural productions, some of which may be residual impulses of modernism.l

Conspiratorial literature allows us to see just such an interpenetration of these periods: a

singular conspiracy theory, in its persistent assertions of a grand narrative, reflects a

modernist impulse; a proliferation of conspiracy theories, or perhaps associated theories,

make information increasingly harder to interpret.

Most scholars relegate periodizing discussions such as these to the content of

conspiracy theory, thus confining the field of terms to modernism and postmodernism;

what remains, however, is to investigate the periodization of the form taken by

conspiratorial narratives. Carl Freedman, studying paranoia in the novels of Philip K.

Dick, writes that "the great maj ority of [science fiction] inherits certain basic formal

properties from the realist, as distinct from the modernist or post-modernist, novel: the

typical SF text has a smoothly diachronic narrative line and offers its characters as

mimetic representations of human beings" (20). This distinction between form and

content is crucial to a discussion of narrative strategies in conspiratorial literature because

it forces us to recognize that, no matter how uniquely conspiracy theory situates its

content in the border spaces of modernism and postmodernism, its narrative form places

it within the familiar terrain of realism. Even in the ubiquitous episodes of 7Jhe X-Files

where conspiratorial thematics meet purely fantasy subj ect matter--for example, the









nationwide cover-up of decades' worth of encounters with extraterrestrial s-the realist

narrative formulation does not lapse into postmodern self-reflection.

Linda Hutcheon, in her classic study The Politics ofPostmodernism, explains the

politics behind realist narratives: "representation that presumes the transparency of the

medium and thus the direct and natural link between sign and referent or between word

and world" (32). In other words, realism attempts to figure totality indisputably and

seamlessly. The political exigencies of a conspiracy theory require just such a

"transparency of the medium" in order for any particular narrative to present itself-no

matter how illogical or fantastical it may be in extreme cases--and its evidence in a

manner accessible to a large public. Jameson touches on the need for this transparency

when he writes, "On the global scale, allegory allows the most random, minute, or

isolated landscapes to function as a figurative machinery in which questions about the

system and its control over the local ceaselessly rise and fall" (TGA 5). Accordingly,

allegory offers a transparent, word-to-world realist narrative mechanism for providing a

cognitive mapping' s representation of totality. If a conspiracy theory aspires to political

utility, it cannot afford to indulge itself in fractured, overly complex narrative forms

typical of high modernism or even literary postmodernism. Only with a realist narrative

framework--and this is especially the case in film, which affects mimesis through its

very representations of humans--can conspiracy theory aspire to relevance in the cultural

marketplace.

The employment of word-to-world narrative strategies in conspiratorial literature

also reflects a more orthodox historical periodization regarding the post 9/11 climate. If

the events of 9/1 1 and the concomitant international actions have in fact spurred the









recent wave of conspiratorial films, one might associate those events with a need to

respond to real, felt crises with literature that aspires to represent that totality. In other

words, the all-too-real bloodshed in the U.S., Afghanistan, and Iraq--not to mention in

innumerable 9/11-related skirmishes elsewhere--have demanded a shift from postmodern

narratives to realist ones that can more effectively deliver representations of cognitive

mapping. These cognitive mappings, especially in the hazy relations of globalization, are

central to grasping domestic and international power relations, and conspiratorial

literature is one avenue for circulating such mappings. As we will see, however, this

penchant for mapping demands that the conspiracy theorist engage in the collection of

information, a process that ultimately risks deferring any real of action.

Notes

1 In his foreword to Lyotard's The Postmodern Condition, Jameson refutes Lyotard's
denial of grand narratives in postmodernism, choosing instead "to posit, not the
disappearance of the great master-narratives, but their passage underground, as it were,
their continuing but now unconscious effectivity as a way of 'thinking about' and acting
in our current situation" (xii). Jameson projects this line of thought onto Lyotard's own
writing when he suggests that Lyotard "has characterized postmodernism, not as that
which follows modernism and its particular legitimation crisis, but rather as a cyclical
moment that returns before the emergence of ever new modernisms in the stricter sense"
(xvi).















CHAPTER 3
CONSUMPTION

Don DeLillo characterizes the practice of conspiracy theory as an exercise in

dietrologia, a word that combines the Italian "dietro," an adverb translated roughly as

"behind," with "logia," a noun pertaining to the science or study of a given subj ect. He

defines dietrologia as "the science of what is behind something. A suspicious event. The

science of what is behind an event" (DeLillo, thiderworld 280). As an enterprise

modeling itself after science, conspiracy theory has a deep kinship with the practice of

collecting--usually of data and other information relevant to the theory at hand.

This fundamental imperative to collect holds, whether we are considering the

conspiracy theorist or his audience. Walter Benj amin writes in The Arcades Project that

"what is decisive in collecting is that the obj ect is detached from all its original functions

in order to enter into the closest conceivable relation to things of the same kind" (204).

Benj amin, addressing this practice of decontextualization, adds that "this relation is the

diametric opposite of any utility, and falls into the peculiar category of completeness"

(204). This impulse to completeness reflects the conspiracy theorist' s fidelity to a

totalizing proj ect, but it often situates conspiracy theory in a consumerist position that

struggles to preserve critical distance from the totality it purports to maintain. Jameson,

in Postmodernism, demurs on this last subj ect, writing that "distance in general

(including 'critical distance' in particular) has very precisely been abolished in the new

space of postmodernism" (48). The rehabilitation of critical distance will be taken up in

the last section of this essay.









Crucial to this discussion is the connection Benj amin finds between collecting and

allegory: "in every collector hides an allegorist, and in every allegorist a collector. As

far as the collector is concerned, his collection is never complete; for let him discover just

a single piece missing, and everything he's collected remains a patchwork, which is what

things are for allegory from the beginning" (211). As we will see, the obstacles to

completeness in a conspiratorial proj ect pose a significant challenge to the political

efficacy of its practice. Still, the pairing of collector and allegorist highlights the realist,

word-to-world exigencies of conspiracy theory: what the conspiratorial collector gathers

bears significance in that the "patchwork" assembled from his collection performs the

service of cognitive mapping, thereby conveying a representation of relations on the

social grid.

For the conspiracy theorist, the practice of collecting takes as its primary obj ect

information. Evan Watkins, in Everyda~y Exchanges, writes that conspiracy theorizing "is

invariably represented as trafficking in the currency of information" (100). The

conspiratorial collector--whether an author of conspiratorial literature, a character in

conspiracy fiction, or a political practitioner of conspiracy theory--must research

disparate sources and synthesize that information into a coherent, often realist, narrative.l

This thorough research can bolster a non-Hictional, historical conspiracy theory's political

impact and heighten the mimetic qualities of a literary work of conspiracy.

But the repetition of the collecting behavior, if taken to an extreme, risks a

continual deferral of conclusion or closure. What' s worse, of course, is that this deferral

of closure for the collection cycle negates the conspiracy theory's potential for political

influence. Such a deferral of closure is precisely what Benj amin introduces when he










explains that a collector cannot complete his collection and instead can only aspire to a

"patchwork." Take for example this description of Nicholas Branch, the historian whose

job it is to compile a secret history of the Kennedy assassination for the CIA in Don

DeLillo's Libra: "Branch must study everything. He is in too deep to be selective. ..

The truth is he hasn't written all that much. He has extensive and overlapping notes--

notes in three-foot drifts, all these years of notes. But of actual finished prose, there is

precious little. It is impossible to stop assembling data" (59). Branch's efforts at

mapping the Kennedy assassination fail because he can only assemble a "patchwork" of

evidence, testimonies, and conj ectures. Without closure for his account of the plot

against the president, Branch cannot offer a compelling, conclusive, complete conspiracy

theory that would prompt a response from the government or offer a sense of resolution

to the American public. This inability to bring closure to the conspiratorial narrative is

what I'm calling "the paralysis of interpretation."

The result of this collecting of information, if it is successfully completed or if it

only holds information in place while the conspiracy theorist investigates, often takes the

organizational form of a map--either narratological or traditionally visual in nature.

Jameson hails the activity of mapping--which he distinguishes from the production of

maps--as a method of organizing information into a coherent, if reductive, representation

of social relations, and he suggests that this representation take the form of allegory, as

noted above. In film, scenes in which a character draws up such a map are crucial for

recognizing the piecing together of a conspiratorial plot, and while a map is merely a

representation of the more ambitious process of mapping, it offers the promise of

engagement with the social. We can find examples of these visual mapping efforts in the









striking creations of the artist Mark Lombardi. Curator Robert Hobbs, whose essays

introduce and accompany Lombardi's artwork in the volume Mark Lombard'i: Global

Networks, explains the artist's method of "narrative structures":

[Lombardi's] drawings are particularly timely now, since he usually created visual
narratives that expose the worldwide interconnections among corporations, political
structures, and ad hoc hierarchies that continue to be serious problems today. ..
To convey this, Lombardi created subtle traceries of information pertaining to
global financial deals and offshore banking that often resemble spider webs or
portions of them. (19)

Each delicately simple pencil-on-paper drawing in the Global Networks exhibition

organizes names, corporations, institutions, and events via "traceries" that signal

interrelationships. The subjects ofLombardi's mappings span financial networks of

international businessmen, government scandals such as the Iran-Contra fiasco, and the

corrupt connections of prominent politicians.2 Often these representations turn to

subj ects of conspiracy, as in BNL, Reagan, Bush, & Thatcher and' the Arming oflraq, ca.

1983-91, which ties the Banca Nazionale del Lavoro to the American and British leaders

in a conspiracy to provide weapons to Iraq (Lombardi 87-91). At the most fundamental

level, we can view Lombardi's mapping art as an attempt to organize this collected

information into a politically expedient representation of a matrix of power, one that

realizes the completeness of its collector' s vision.

But not all conspiracy theorists piece together their collected information as

coherently as Mark Lombardi does with his concise mappings. Instead, many conspiracy

theorists leave their collected findings in "patchwork" form, in disarray with loose ends

untied and conclusions forestalled. Indeed, unmappable relations, or at least the

conspiracy theorist' s inability to map those relations coherently, are very often the

starting point for works of conspiratorial literature. For example, in Jonathan Demme's









remake of 7Jhe Manchurian Can2didate (2004), Maj or Ben Marco (Denzel Washington)

uncovers a cache of incoherently related information in the hotel room of Corporal Al

Melvin (Jeffrey Wright). Melvin's information-sketches of images from recovered

memories, newspaper clippings, photographs, and scrawled inscriptions--sprawl s across

his walls and the pages of his j journal with no discernable organization to help Marco

comprehend its underlying narrative.

Melvin and Marco have undergone the same brainwashing scheme, courtesy of the

Manchurian Global corporation, and Marco struggles to piece together those events as

they have recurred to him in dreams and flashes of recovered memory and in the images

from Melvin' s walls and j ournals. Melvin' s failed attempt at mapping the conspiracy,

though later redeemed by Marco's detective work, marks a fundamental necessity for the

political impact of a conspiracy theory: representational organization of the collected

materials. Marco's outline of the Manchurian conspiracy leaves no room for the fluidity

of totality that Jameson advocates, but it does offer enough completeness for the

appropriate agencies to disrupt the corporation's plot for the White House. Still, Marco's

work fundamentally fails to register totality: the localized malfeasance of Manchurian

Global is eliminated, but there is no mention of systemic reform--much less anything

approaching systemic transformation--at the conclusion of the film. Marco's project

bears out Jameson's assertion that conspiracy theory is a "degraded" form of cognitive

mapping, because it privileges local ethics over totalizing politics and offers a reductive

resolution to the systemic crisis for which Manchurian Global is but one example.

Once a representational organization is in place, the general audience of

conspiratorial literature--and this always includes the conspiracy theorists themselves--









also engages in a practice of collecting. The audience' s collecting, instead of focusing on

specific bits of information, focuses on the conspiratorial narrative itself, and for this

reason it very closely resembles traditional processes of commodity consumption.

Indeed, Clare Birchall, in "The Commodification of Conspiracy Theory," argues that, as

recent films have adopted the term "conspiracy" into their very titles, the notion of

conspiracy theory "starts to signify a marketable category rather than a subterranean

activity" (235). When conspiracy theory is fetishized to the point of becoming a standard

commercial product, it not only risks its potential for critical distance, but it also enters

into the field of rote consumption. Two issues are at play here. First, as we have

established, the formal logic of conspiracy theory resembles consumerism because of its

process of collecting, which risks enervating its ability to organize action. Second,

conspiracy theory has become an easily marketable product, which impairs its critical

distance. The issue of marketability doesn't necessarily strip conspiracy theory of its

"subterranean" foundation, but if it leads broader audiences into the cycle of collecting,

this marketability increases the risk that action will be deferred.

The repeated consumption of conspiracy theories, while offering the promise of

agitating the viewing public into action, all too often reinforces the habitualization of the

market ideology of consumerism. The viewer of conspiratorial film collects the assorted

narratives, and, to return to Benjamin's terms, decontextualizes those narratives into a

"completeness" of paranoid likeness. By this process, films on disparate subjects--take

for example Jon Turteltaub's National Trea~sure (2004) and Sydney Pollack' s The

Interpreter (2005)--enter into a likeness that has nothing to do with their content, but

that instead hinges on their shared conspiratorial sense. The conspiracies in these two









fi1ms share nothing in their content, but viewers could associate them in a bond of

paranoid likeness. The collector' s act of decontextualization has the effect of de-

politicizing each narrative into an iteration of paranoia, and the specific allegations and

information illustrated along the way disappear under the larger mantle of mere paranoia.

Timothy Melley, in Empire of Conspiracy, explores the consumerist attributes of

conspiracy theory in terms of addiction. In a reading of William S. Burroughs' Naked

Lunch, Melley observes that several of the characters are "control addicts," and he

explains that "the more radical idea of an addiction to control itself liquidates the concept

of control altogether" (165). Conspirators lose agency to their addiction to power, and it

follows that conspiracy theorists and their audiences lose agency both to power-hungry

cabals of conspirators and to their own consumerist addictions. The narrative of the

individual addicted to exposing a conspiracy is common enough-Warren Beatty's

Joseph Frady in The ParallaxPPP~~~~PPP~~~PPP View and Denzel Washington's Ben Marco in The

Manchurian Can2didate both exemplify the lone conspiracy theorist's near-deranged

Eixation on uncovering and publicizing the conspiracy plot. What is less commonly

recognized is that the methodical consumption of these narratives marks a similar

fixation--here a Eixation on repetitious consumption--on the part of theater-going

audiences or the reading public.

In many ways, conspiracy theory becomes fetishized because it so readily lends

itself to an abundance of interpretations, and even this proliferation of interpretation

marks a consumerist impulse. Mark Fenster explains that "conspiracy theory demands

continual interpretation in which there is always something more to know about an

alleged conspiracy, the evidence of which is subj ected to an investigative machine that










depends on the perpetual motion of signifieation" (77-78). Of course, such an

interminable process of interpretation indefinitely suspends even a provisional conclusion

or closure--again, Benj amin' s problematic of the collector' s "patchwork"-for the

conspiratorial narrative, as the conspiracy theorist continuously pursues more information

to strengthen his allegations.

We can observe one example of this phenomenon as the paralysis of interpretation

entraps Dr. Bill Harford (Tom Cruise) in Stanley Kubrick's Eyes Wide .1/////(1999).

Concerned that his trespass into a hedonistic masquerade ball may have resulted in the

death of a young woman--was she killed in a perverse sacrifice, or did she really die

from a drug overdose as the newspapers reported?-Harford investigates the cult-like

group of debauchees, tries to ascertain the young woman's identity, and questions his

friends for whatever information they have regarding the nameless, faceless, Tristero-like

sex organization. But the result of Harford's detective work, despite its thoroughness,

disappoints; after returning from interviewing his last informant, he promises to his wife

"I'll tell you everything. I'll tell you everything." Harford, unable to compile enough

information to break the cycle of interpretation, leaves the circumstances of the young

woman's death forever veiled in mystery. Not only does the camera pull away from his

explanation to his wife, but Harford takes no public action against what might be a

murderous organization.

The paralysis of interpretation threatens to render conspiracy theorists trapped in a

never-ending process of consumption, and in still other ways the conspiracy theorist' s

interpretation complements consumer society. Rem Koolhaas, studying Salvador Dali's

"Paranoid-Critical Method," observes that this brand of conspiracy theorizing "promises










that, through conceptual recycling, the worn, consumed contents of the world can be

recharged or enriched like uranium, and that ever-new generations of false facts and

fabricated evidences can be generated simply through the act of interpretation" (203).

This process of "conceptual recycling" complicates the act of collecting that is inherent to

the conspiracy theorist's behavior. Through the decontextualization of information, the

conspiracy theorist creates a new product that, as Birchall reminds us, is ready for sale on

the market. Conspiracy theory, close kin if not synonym for "Paranoid-Critical Method,"

repackages old information into a shiny, sexy new narrative, and this market-oriented

recycling further strengthens the symbiotic relationship between conspiracy theory and

consumer society. However, the Paranoid-Critical Method, in addition to its

consumption-oriented "conceptual recycling," creates opportunities for a productive

radical critique, which we will explore later.

My study of this symbiotic relationship has, so far, characterized conspiracy theory

as a critical gesture toward totality that enervates its own critical distance by reproducing

consumer behaviors. Marx, detailing the consumption of material and labor in

Grundrisse, writes that "the whole process therefore appears as productive consumption,

i.e. as consumption which terminates neither in a void, nor in the mere subj ectification of

the objective, but which is, rather, again posited as an object" (300-01). "Productive

consumption" precisely explains the logic of conspiracy theory, which rarely offers

enough completeness or conclusion to terminate its cycle of interpretation and thereby

posits itself as its own obj ect, as a practice to be repeated and even habitualized. This

critique, however, does not engage an alternate meaning of "productive"--the one

pertaining to utility. Benj amin' s conspirator focuses on completeness to the point of









neglecting utility altogether, but a renewed concentration on utility, which is so closely

related to action, perhaps offers the best method for all conspiracy theory--whether

located in film, fiction, political rhetoric, or smoky back alleys--to reclaim its critical

distance and trade in its position of negative critique for a positive one.

Notes

1 Patrick O'Donnell describes the process of collection as indicative of the "overvoice,"
which he explains as representing the "collation of coincidental tic and expression into
communal grammar" (187). O'Donnell finds the overvoice in Mailer' s 7Jhe
Executioner 's Song, writing that it signals "the insertion of Mailer' s intention--more
pointedly, his paranoid authorial presence--into events that otherwise would appear to be
random" (187). The overvoice designates a useful term for considering how authors of
conspiratorial literature and historical conspiracy theories organize their collected
information into a coherent narrative. The form of the overvoice can vary, but the
presence of some kind of organization is crucial to the viability of a conspiracy.


Figure 1. Detail of George W. Bush, Harken Energy, and Jackson Stevens ca. 1979-90,
5" version. Photo courtesy of The Quarterly WilliamnsburgArt Review
(http ://www.wburg.com/0202/arts/lombardi .html).

2 Figure 1 is a sample of Lombardi's work. Hobbs explains that George W. Bush,
Harken Energy, and Jackson Stephens, ca. 1979-90 (24 '/8x 48 1/4 in.) "fOcuses on the
roles that cronyism and insider trading played in the fortunes of George W. Bush in the
1980s, before he became governor of Texas" (Lombardi 99). This representation of
networked relationships is typical of Lombardi's method of conveying the information he
has collected. Often the arrangement of these collections implies conspiracy, as in this






18


piece that links together domestic corporations and foreign politics to suggest a concerted
effort to sustain George W. Bush's financial interests.















CHAPTER 4
PRODUCTION

Here I want to offer some brief remarks on this flip-side of conspiracy theory--its

qualities of production--before moving to a reading. Many cultural studies scholars tend

to view conspiracy theory's productive traits negatively, or at best receive them

hesitantly. Indeed, such scholarship mirrors the reservations that marginalize conspiracy

theory and theorists in contemporary culture. Such scholarship and attitudes focus on the

production of fantasy in conspiracy theory--which, to be sure, is a risk latent in any

effort to map out secretive, perhaps even undecidable, relations--instead of considering

its productive potential.

As noted in my introduction, Richard Hofstadter maintains that the paranoid style is

characterized by a "leap into fantasy." For Hofstadter, the term "conspiracy theorist" is

derogatory because, he maintains, "the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes

than good" (5). Given his insistence that conspiracy theories necessarily draw fictive

conclusions from a body of fact, this conclusion seems reasonable. But Hofstadter,

writing before Watergate actualized so many fears about secrecy and corruption, wrongly

dismisses conspiracy theory as completely marginal and irrelevant to the mainstream's

concerns. Evan Watkins echoes Hofstadter' s apprehension, though less stridently, when

he writes that conspiracy theories have the unfortunate tendency of mistaking motive for

general effect, thus propagating unfounded conclusions.l Perhaps more importantly,

Hofstadter' s approach characterizes the dominant rhetoric regarding conspiracy









throughout popular culture, marginalizing conspiracy theorists by aligning them with X-

Files-like fantasy.

Following Hofstadter, Koolhaas' s analysis of the Paranoid-Critical Method (PCM)

also seems to align conspiratorial thinking with the production of irreality. However, for

Koolhaas such an irreality is constructive. He describes this method as a "delirium of

interpretation": "Each fact, event, force, observation is caught in one system of

speculation and 'understood' by the afflicted individual in such a way that it absolutely

confirms and reinforces his thesis--that is, the initial delusion which is his point of

departure. The paranoiac always hits the nail on the head', no matter where the hammer

blows fall" (Koolhaas 201). Koolhaas continues to explain that the PCM has two steps:

first, it concocts a grandiose paranoid theory; and second, it manipulates the facts until

they support one's position (202). This process inverts the sequence of thoughts in

Hofstadter' s "leap into fantasy," and on the surface it seems to confirm Hofstadter's

assertion that conspiracy theory demands an underlying manufacture of an irreal,

logically untenable belief. But for Koolhaas this "delirium of interpretation" is a crucial

method of reinforcing one's consciousness of power and social relations.

Mark Fenster, more sympathetic to the aims of conspiracy theory than Hofstadter,

explains conspiracy theory and production in terms of desire. He writes that "conspiracy

theory is a practice of desire that moves "~\` (Fenster 95). The movement of this desire,

Fenster asserts, produces "not only a circular, seemingly endless desire and proliferation

of conspiracy-related texts, but also affective intensities and flows, self-generating and

forever flying through space and time" (95). The benefit of such a desire-production,

though it may seem irrevocably self-reflexive and "circular," is that it holds a utopian










promise: the manufacture of conspiratorial literature becomes the means to an end--and

for Fenster the end is the democratization of power relations--which can benefit a whole

society. Unlike Hofstadter' s denunciations of conspiracy theory as a production of

fantasy, Fenster' s focus on desire redirects that production to the field of productivity.

That Fenster, Koolhaas, and Watkins are in the minority of scholars who view

conspiracy theory and theorizing as having the potential for a radical, even utopian

impact reflects the ubiquity of scholarship that engages in negative critique. Indeed, my

own scrutiny of the symbiosis between conspiracy theory and consumer society strikes

the fashionable pose of the academic who asserts his primacy by emphasizing the failure

of this or that theory, cultural practice, or artwork. What remains, then, is to restore to

conspiracy theory the productive potential which Fenster, Koolhaas, and Watkins hint.

Notes

SIn a passage examining claims that capital is a "motivated system" that conspires
against the proletariat and Marx's insistence on observing capitalism as a complicated
system of social relations, Watkins writes that "conspiracy theories short-circuit this
complex structural analysis by immediately assigning to capitalist owners the motivation
of exploiting workers rather than of accumulating capital" (115).















CHAPTER 5
MINING CONSPIRACY INT SILVER CITY: A CASE STUDY INT LYRICAL TRUTH
AND THE PARALYSIS OF INTERPRETATION

When gubernatorial candidate Dickie Pilager (Chris Cooper) casts into Lake

Arapahoe for one of his TV spots on the environment, he never expected that he would

reel in a dead body. Nor would he have imagined that the circumstances surrounding the

body's unceremonious dumping would implicate one of his largest campaign contributors

in a migrant labor scandal. But this purely contingent event draws together the two

figures--the candidate and the body of Lazaro Huerta-and creates a space for one

enterprising detective, the former investigative reporter Danny O'Brien (Danny Huston),

to begin to conceive of the shady links between Pilager and his corrupting financier, Wes

Benteen (Kris Kristofferson). From here, Danny employs his reporter-detective skills to

wax conspiratorial about the relationship between the Pilager family and Benteen, along

the way illustrating the trademark characteristics that I have outlined for the conspiracy

theorist: collecting information, striving toward a cognitive mapping of totality, and

ultimately struggling with the paralysis of interpretation.

Ostensibly, John Sayles's Silver City (2004) takes its polemical aim at President

George W. Bush. Trailers for the film highlight Cooper' s performance of the clueless,

ineloquent gubernatorial candidate, setting the film up as an extensive satire of the

president who was running for re-election during the film's release. In this respect,

Cooper' s performance does not disappoint. In an impromptu press conference, Pilager

speaks about his campaign agenda:









I'm not raising taxes. We can't just keep throwing the taxpayers' hard-earned
money at these perceived--you know, some of them, I admit, are real--so-called
social problems. We have to get our priorities straight. Education is a priority.
Health care is a priority. Uh, our economy is a priority. The environmental--the
whole environmental, uh, arena--that's a priority, big priority. Building new roads
and maintaining the present--keeping the infrastructure in place, where it
belongs--that' s a priority.


Pilager' s lack of elocution is so painful that his own father, Senator Judson Pilager,

comments that his son is "a fucking disaster when he' s off the script." And if the

parallels to contemporary politics weren't clear, the background of one shot in the film

shows defaced posters of the younger Bush sporting horns and a trickster' s goatee.

Indeed, one of the film's crew members remarks that after observing the 2000 election

scandal in Florida while filming Sunshine State (2002), Sayles dedicated himself to

"kick[ing] George Bush's ass" (Making of).

Of course if we accept that the purpose of the film is to derail Bush' s reelection

campaign, we must surely classify it as a failure: as far as Silver City is concerned, the

president made it through 2004 with his hindquarters unharmed. But Silver City' s

inability to offer a political obstacle to the Bush campaign is mirrored in its protagonist' s

inability provide a clear link between Dickie Pilager and the money coming in from Wes

Benteen's underhanded Bentel Corporation. The anxiety over extreme corporate

lobbying power is reminiscent of the recent remake of The Manchurian Can2didate, as

Benteen has provided more than half of the funds in Pilager' s campaign war chest in the

hope that Pilager will support legislation to deregulate environmental and industrial

standards that affect the interests of the Bentel Corporation' s family of businesses--

Benteen Ranch, Benteen Realty, Benteen Medical Associates, Gold Mine

Communications, BENagra, and Bentel Stadium. This relationship is markedly less ham-









handed than Manchurian Global's efforts to control, literally and allegorically, the mind

of a presidential candidate, and accordingly Danny O'Brien's conspiracy theory cannot

aspire to the straightforwardness of Maj or Ben Marco' s clear assessment of the

relationship between corporate sponsor and puppet-politician.

The complexity of the conspiracy theory that Danny O'Brien pursues is largely due

to the challenges of contingency. Of course, "contingency" has dual meanings here. One

such meaning, adopted by Skip Willman in his formulation of "contingency theory,"

indicates marginalization. Willman's contingency theory refers to a concept of the social

that "represents a new and widespread 'strategy of containment' in the effort to dispel the

'paranoid' fears raised by conspiracy theory" (22). A negative critique of conspiracy

theory, contingency theory posits "a smoothly functioning social system subj ect to

random deviations and deformations introduced by external corrupting forces" (Willman

28-29). In Willman's sense of the word, "contingency" refers to the conspiracy theorist

becoming incidental to the real goings-on of society, and indeed Danny O'Brien's

voice--like Silver City itself-is ultimately silenced by the very mechanism of

marginalization found in Hofstadter' s outline of the paranoid style. But in another sense,

O'Brien' s first struggle is to make sense of the contingency of the film' s opening scene--

the incidental snagging of Pilager' s fishing hook on Lazaro Huerta' s corpse. The

challenge here is for O'Brien to establish that the incident is more than an aleatory gaffe

on the campaign trail and to expose the intense meaning behind the event: Pilager

himself is implicated, though unknowingly, in the cover-up of a migrant worker' s death

under dubious circumstances at the BENagra slaughterhouse.









This second challenge of contingency demands a significant degree of research

from the conspiracy theorist. And, in a plot rather unorthodox for the genre, Sayles's

conspiracy theorist starts off on the conspirator' s payroll. Pilager' s campaign advisor, the

Karl Rove-like Chuck Raven (Richard Dreyfuss), suspects at the outset of the Hishing

incident that political foul play may be involved, confiding to a coroner, "There's also the

remote possibility that this is not a coincidence. I don't think I'm being paranoid when I

consider the possibility that one of our opponents had something to do with this." Of

course, Raven could not have foreseen that the incident is not a coincidence, that one of

his biggest allies, Benteen, was ultimately responsible for the body, and he tumns to the

help of an independent detective agency to investigate the possibility of political motives

behind Lazaro Huerta' s inconvenient resurrection. The case lands in Danny O'Brien's

lap, and he is charged with confronting three of Pilager' s political enemies--Cliff

Castleton, Casey Lyle, and his own sister Madeline Pilager (Daryl Hannah)-to let them

know that Chuck Raven has them under surveillance. But after a brief examination of

Pilager' s political connections, O'Brien shifts the focus of his investigation from

Pilager' s enemies to his shady connections to Benteen.

Here the process of collection begins in earnest, and it is no coincidence that

O'Brien is warned of the Pilager-Benteen connection by Mitch Paine (Tim Roth), a

guerrilla j oumalist whom O'Brien had befriended in his earlier days as a reporter. Paine

runs an independent media outlet that O'Brien j okingly refers to as "kill-the-rich.com,"

and he immediately senses his old friend's new aff61iations. When O'Brien seeks help

with the list of names Raven has charged him with investigating, Paine pointedly asks,

"You're working for them now, aren't you? Them that run the whole deal?" Paine is,










perhaps, the model conspiracy theorist, and after glossing on Castleton, Lyle, and

Madeline Pilager, he introduces O'Brien to his pet project: the investigation of the

Pilager family's relationship to Wes Benteen. Here O'Brien learns that Benteen had

provided cargo planes for Oliver North during Iran-Contra, that more recently he has

been bringing in large numbers illegal immigrants to fill a labor shortage during a union

strike, never once having been inspected by Immigration Services, and that he bailed out

Pilager for his investment in the Silver City Development site, which lost its value when

it was discovered to sit upon an abandoned mine that was releasing toxic heavy metals

into the water table. Paine's information takes the shape of a narrative that is geared

primarily toward impugning Pilager and Benteen. Benj amin describes the process by

which the collector inscribes meaning onto the collection: "All of these-the 'objective'

data together with the other--come together, for the true collector, in every single one of

his possessions, to form a whole magic encyclopedia, a world order, whose outline is the

fate of its object" (207). Paine' s narrative imagines the fate its obj ects-the revelation of

a corrupt relationship between government and business--and O'Brien seizes on this

narrative as the framework for his own investigation.

Paine provides O'Brien with a solid "magic encyclopedia" of the Pilager-Benteen

connection, leaving him to discern its mediation by Lazaro Huerta, and O'Brien starts

right away at the trademark work of the detective. With only a photograph of a tattoo on

Lazaro Huerta's hand and a list of possible culprits, O'Brien sets out to uncover the

man's identity and the circumstances under which his body emerged from Lake

Arapahoe, dividing his time between background work on Lazaro Huerta and confronting

Raven's three suspects. What began as an assignment to intimidate Castleton, Lyle, and









Madeline Pilager by signaling Chuck Raven' s suspicions of them has now turned into a

much more penetrating exercise in mining. As the investigation continues, O'Brien goes

deeper and deeper into Lazaro Huerta' s story--surely deeper than Raven had ever hoped

or planned--discovering Vince Esparza' s work as a coyote delivering illegal labor to

BENagra' s fields and slaughterhouses and Benteen Realty's construction sites. And as

he delves further into Raven's list of suspects--in once case literally down into the earth

following a miner' s tour given by Casey Lyle--he uncovers more of Pilager' s mercenary

rise to power, including Raven's maniacal drive to befriend and influence the Pilager

family as well as Benteen' s reckless mining of the land he leased from Pilager that led to

the contamination of the Silver City watershed. But when he reemerges from his mining

campaign, the product of O'Brien' s collecting efforts is much harder to measure and

calculate than any silver or gold, and the next step for his conspiracy theory--the

revelation of information in the service of political impact--remains a distant hope.

As we have seen in Mark Lombardi's traceries and in Corporal Al Melvin' s

sketches in The Manchurian Can2didate remake, mapping is a crucial step toward

actualizing the political potential of a conspiracy theory, and indeed cognitive mapping is

the very essence of conspiracy theory. It is important to remember that a map is only a

figure of the broader process of cognitive mapping, but without the map's fundamental

organization of the collected materials, the conspiracy theorist' s efforts have little chance

of affecting change. In Silver City, we see O'Brien drawing up such a map to think the

conspiratorial relationship revealed by Lazaro Huerta's resurrection, literally sketching

onto his living room wall the events and figures involved in the conspiracy he tries to










piece together, connecting them with arching directional arrows to designate the flow of

their relationships in a matrix that is comparable to Lombardi's drawings.

O'Brien's walls have served similar mapping functions in his earlier reporting

work, and this connect-the-dots scene illustrates his drive to discern surreptitious

relationships. The scene in O'Brien's living room takes place as he is still piecing

together his own narrative of Lazaro Huerta' s relationship to Pilager and Benteen, adding

names and directional arrows to the wall in an effort to break the veil of contingency that

enshrouds the event at Lake Arapahoe.






















Figure 2. Danny O'Brien ruminates on the early stages of his cognitive mapping.

Crucially, he adds Vincent Esparza' s name to the mix and links it to Benteen' s. This

representation of the conspiracy narrative helps O'Brien, as well as the film's audience,

visualize the possible relationships that underlie Pilager' s "pro-growth," anti-

environment policies and their connections to Benteen through the very body of Lazaro

Huerta. This intense focus on the particulars of the Pilager-Benteen conspiracy theory,









while critical to its potential to thwarting Pilager's gubernatorial aspirations, validates

Jameson's assertion that conspiracy theory is a "degraded" form of cognitive mapping

because it tends to prioritize representations of localized malfeasance over those of

totality. As in the remake of The Manchurian Candidate, the problem of Danny

O'Brien's cognitive mapping is really a problem of scale because it substitutes local

totality and ethics for broad totality and politics.

It' s worth noting here that while O'Brien' s mapping effort may be a "degraded"

form of cognitive mapping, the Sayles oeuvre, taken as a whole, demonstrates a fidelity

to the proj ect of mapping totality, illuminating many of the thematics that we find in

Silver City. Matewan, Sayles's 1987 film about the 1920 struggles to unionize a West

Virginia mining town, involves the exploitation of labor and the necessity of collective

action in order to protect laborers. Union organizer Joe Kenehan (Chris Cooper) strains

to keep the Mingo County laborers from internal discrimination--the workers' identities

as Appalachian whites, Italian immigrants, and African Americans put them in a state of

perilous discord--by constantly reminding them that "There ain't but two sides of this

world: them that work and them that don't. You work. They don't." In Lone Star, his

1996 film about a father-son pair of law officers in a Texas border town, Sayles displays

his interest in hybridity, mapping the lines between nations and cultures across spatial

and human bodies. Otis Payne, the owner of a bar, has an exhibit of the Black

Seminoles, a band of hybridized refugees who lived in the Everglades during Spain's rule

of Florida; his personal collection of the Black Seminoles' artifacts stands in as a

microcosm of the cultural and racial transfers that take place across the Mexican-

American borders throughout the film. Sunshine State, his film about commercial and









residential development in two of Florida' s coastal communities, represents the social

and environmental perils of a system that privileges the economic profits of growth over

more traditional values of continuity. In one scene, residents of the bourgeois Delrona

Beach community hold a parade that reenacts the Spanish conquest of the land they now

occupy, ironically noting the corporate sponsorship of their festival rites as if to

acknowledge the connection of two imperial powers: the Spanish and the strip mall.

These three fundamental themes--labor rights, immigrant rights, and development--

converge in Silver City to demonstrate Sayles's totalizing vision that recognizes the

themes' intimate relationships.

Regardless of its reluctance to conceive of totality, Danny O'Brien' s conspiracy

theory still faces the more immediate obstacle of the contingent nature of the Lake

Arapahoe event. In other words, his mapping efforts do not yet prove a link between

Pilager, Benteen, and Lazaro Huerta that is conclusive enough to bring Raven's campaign

machine to its knees. Through no failure in his detective's collecting skills, O'Brien has

arrived at an information impasse. Having interviewed each of Pilager's primary

enemies and heard their stories of his treacherous incompetence, and having followed

every lead on Lazaro Huerta to discover that he died in a slaughterhouse that flouted

safety regulations because its illegal laborers couldn't address their needs through

appropriate legal channels, Danny O'Brien finds himself knowing that Benteen' s

intentions for Pilager are depraved, but also knowing that he will likely never be able to

prove it. O'Brien's impotence here defies the knowledge-as-power thematic that we will

return to later in Richard Donner's Conspiracy 7lheory (1997), seemingly leaving him

with two choices: he can continue collecting, risking the paralysis of interpretation, or he










can quit the investigation altogether, ensuring that the information would never be

exposed.

Sayles does, however, share with the audience a scene that provides damning

evidence of the corrupt lobbying relationship, although the scene, by its very nature,

precludes O'Brien's access. The camera pans across a sweeping mountain vista, slowly

focusing on the two men, sans entourage, riding horseback across an open field.

BENTEEN. Look at a map, they got the half the West under lock and key.
PILAGER. They?
BENTEEN. Bureau of Land Management, Forest Service, national parks,
the State....It' s like a treasure chest waiting to be opened, only there' s
a 500-pound bureaucrat sitting on it.
PILAGER. Well, I'm a small government man.
BENTEEN. I know. That's why we chose you, son.

Benteen continues to lecture Pilager, who tries his best to keep up, on the virtues of

privatization and designates him "one of the point men in the fight to liberate [natural]

resources." This conversation concretely indicts the wicked lobbying arrangement

between the two men. However, it is beyond O'Brien's powers of collection, leaving his

mapping efforts unrealized. Without a record of this exchange, a record akin to Nixon' s

elusive White House tapes, O'Brien's conspiratorial narrative will remain inconclusive,

unverifiable. He has to continue searching for a record of similar exchanges if his

collection is to have meaning.

However, the film's conclusion remains hopeful, as O'Brien manages a curious

negotiation of deferral here, neither persisting in the paralysis of interpretation nor

resigning his collection to the garbage dump of dead conspiracy theories. Having been

fired from the private investigation firm for digging deeper into the mines than his clients

desired, O'Brien himself has no means to continue collecting data on Pilager and









Benteen. Indeed, he tells a friend that his first order of business as an unemployed man is

"to repaint [his] living room," signaling his abandonment of the mapping project. But he

has found a way to impart his collection proj ect to others in the hope that Benteen' s

responsibility--and accordingly Pilager's shady relationship to the Bentel Corporation--

will be exposed to the public. In one of the closing scenes, we follow a staffer from

Mitch Paine' s guerrilla j ournalism outfit into the office, where she Einds an anonymous

message wedged between the door and the doorframe. Over her should we see a map of

the Silver City development site, with directions to the open mine shaft where miners

dumped toxic materials and Vincent Esparza dumped Lazaro Huerta' s body. "Weird.

'Silver City,'" she says, reading the note's contents. "Someone left us a treasure map."

Of course, this map is altogether different from the map on O'Brien's living room wall,

prioritizing spacial relationships over social ones, but nonetheless it will plant a seed in

the alternative media, seizing on Paine's earlier suggestion of a "trickle up" effect in

which alternative media sources do the legwork on scandalous stories before the reports

filter into mainstream outlets. Accordingly, O'Brien's final movement on the case is not

an act not of deferral of action, but of deference to another organization that might

succeed where his collecting efforts failed.

Regardless of O'Brien' s ultimate failure to expose the profound implications of

Lazaro Huerta's death and resurrection, he does apprehend the truth that underlies the

Lake Arapahoe event: he is precise in his dietrologia. In this way, he is a student of

what Don DeLillo calls the "lyrically true," that which is "unprovably true, remotely and

inadmissibly true but not completely unhistorical, not without some nuance of authentic

inner narrative" (Underworld 172). Lyrical truth, as we will see, expresses conviction in









the absence of substantial evidence. It is the mechanism that allows a conspiratorial-

minded person to "know" that the moon landing was a hoax designed to embarrass the

Soviets or that Hitler escaped Berlin to live the remainder of his life in peaceful

anonymity in South America. Of course, these examples illustrate the Hofstadter-like

qualities of conspiracy theory that lyrical truth can help create and sustain, but we can

also imagine the usefulness of lyrical truth to our own exercises in conspiracy (or critical)

theory when we encounter an impasse in information. In Silver City, lyrical truth bridges

the information gaps that Danny O'Brien and Mitch Paine strive to overcome. The

audience, having observed the horseback conversation between Pilager and Benteen, can

verify the empirical truth of O'Brien' s conspiratorial narrative, but for O'Brien and his

associates at Paine' s online news site, that truth remains only lyrical, detached from any

viable concrete political application. After all, lyrical truth would bear little resistance to

the scrutiny it would encounter if it were to be the primary method of substantiating a

conspiracy theory because it relies on conviction instead of demonstrable evidence.

Lyrical truth operates as a mode of production. Like Koolhaas's assessment of the

Paranoid-Critical Method, the epistemology of lyrical truth demands that one begin with

a general sense of the world and then interpret the world according to the paradigms of

the preconceived lyrical truth. As we have seen, Koolhaas's PCM produces a set of

knowledge in accordance with one's initial thesis, and this is no less true for lyrical truth.

One key difference between the two methodologies, however, is that lyrical truth has no

pretenses about verifiability. While the PCM contorts data to substantiate the paranoiac's

thesis, a lyrical truth confirms the thesis more loosely. To return to the example set on

Danny O'Brien's living room wall, lyrical truth does not connect the conspiratorial dots









with indisputable evidence, but rather it juxtaposes those dots in a way that feels right.

Lyrical truth, then, is a matter of faith.

The declaration of faith that marks lyrical truth is a crucial step toward transferring

conspiracy theory from a consumption-oriented enterprise to a proactively productive

one. This shift toward a positive critique that forges a productive synthesis of knowledge

and action is a radical departure from the complacent consumption of information that

often leads to the paralysis of interpretation. Indeed, Jean Baudrillard, in The M~irror of

Production, argues that "productivist discourse" must be appropriated from the discourse

of the political economy and put to work "in the name of an authentic and radical

productivity" (17). This "radical productivity" can be set in motion by what he calls the

"the mirror of production," a process which, like Lacan's mirror stage, brings the

individual to self-consciousness through his recognition of himself as embodying the

transformative power of the "productivist discourse" (Baudrillard 19-20).

The productive power of lyrical truth lies in its ability to bridge gaps in

information. Danny O'Brien's commitment to lyrical truth allows him to circumvent his

inability to observe the horseback exchange between Pilager and Benteen, thereby

facilitating his power to feel the truth in the absence of the means to prove it. O'Brien

may not have arrived at the consciousness of his own transformative power to produce,

but nevertheless he employs that productive capacity toward assembling the yield of his

information collection in a meaningful--and perhaps politically potent--formation.

Though the very lyrical, and thus necessarily unprovable, nature of his collection

undermines its menace as a conspiracy theory, O'Brien's gathering of information

succeeds in the standards of the collector. Benjamin concludes his study of collecting,









ruminating that "perhaps the most deeply hidden motive of the person who collects can

be described this way: he takes up the struggle against dispersion. Right from the start,

the great collector is struck by the confusion, by the scatter, in which the things of the

world are found" (211). Moving, as we have seen, to tie the collector to the allegorist,

Benj amin continues to explain that the allegorist "has given up the attempt to elucidate

things through research into their properties and relations. He dislodges things from their

context and, from the outset, relies on his profundity to illuminate their meaning" (211).

It is precisely the profundity of lyrical truth that O'Brien relies on to animate his study in

dietrologia, and in using this methodology, O'Brien becomes an allegorist just as much

as a collector.

Though Danny O'Brien's collecting efforts are stunted by an unfortunate

information gap, we need not conclude that all conspiratorial collecting efforts

necessarily end in a similar negotiation with the paralysis of interpretation. O'Brien' s

inability to mine evidence of a malfeasant relationship between Pilager and Benteen

damns to failure his efforts as a conspiratorial-minded politico. However, his successes

in "the struggle against dispersion" demonstrate the benefits of his methodology of lyrical

truth: in the absence of concrete evidence, we may still have faith in our convictions.

Indeed, lyrical truth is a critical bridging mechanism that mediates the stages of

production for a conspiracy theory: it marks the passage from an inchoate suspicion to a

fully developed, politically potent indictment of conspiracy. Silver City concludes in this

intermediate stage, leaving its audience with only the hope that Mitch Paine's media

outlet will complete the development of O'Brien' s conspiratorial collection.









As a brief exercise in contrast, we can look to Fernando Meirelles's The Constant

Gardener (2005) for its illustration of the production of a conspiracy theory. The story

begins with the deaths of two conspiracy theorists, Tessa Quayle (Rachel Weisz) and

Arnold Bluhm (Hubert Kounde), who we later learn were investigating a pharmaceutical

company for testing its tuberculosis drugs on poor and sick Africans. From this point

forward we observe the awakening of Justin Quayle (Ralph Fiennes), Tessa' s husband.

Justin, a British diplomat assigned to Kenya, enters the film as a figure of the apathetic.

He feels powerless to remedy the great suffering, poverty, and sickness that surround

him, unaware of his wife's secret plans to expose the KDH pharmaceutical

conglomerate' s exploitation of unsuspecting test subj ects. But after Tessa' s murder, the

seed of conspiratorial suspicion takes root in Justin's mind. Slowly he perceives a lyrical

truth explaining her death, and he follows that lyrical truth to its concrete incarnation as a

conspiracy theory as he tracks down the leads Tessa left behind. Ultimately he is killed

for asking the same questions his wife did, but not before he has registered enough

evidence to indict, even after his death, KDH' s two conspiracies: to exploit African test

subj ects and to cover-up by way of murder Tessa, Arnold, and, indeed, Justin himself.

The Constant Gardener displays the three steps of producing a viable conspiracy

theory--inchoate suspicion, lyrical truth, and concrete conspiracy theory--whereas Silver

City leaves that process incomplete.

However, regardless of the incompleteness of Danny O'Brien' s conspiracy theory,

his work demonstrates the necessity of lyrical truth in the collector's "struggle against

dispersion." And the methodology of lyrical truth marks a crucial intersection of

consumption and production. In conspiracy theory, it is the hinge that joins the process









of collecting to the process of assembling the collected materials into a meaningful

formation. While the conspiracy theory may enter the market as a commodity for

consumption, as Birchall has suggested, this lyrical truth also endows it with a productive

capacity that holds the promise of breaking the conspiracy theorist' s flirtation with the

paralysis of interpretation.















CHAPTER 6
CONCLUSION: TOWARD A POSITIVE CRITIQUE IN (CONSPIRACY) THEORY

I have made the focus of this paper the act and behavior of conspiracy theorizing,

but the act of conspiring itself merits some attention here, especially in the context of

cultural production and consumption and in the discourse of positive and negative

critiques. Whereas conspiracy theorizing is an act of production toward its own

consumption as a commodity, the act of conspiring is productive in that it often has

significant consequences. The difference between the two is fundamentally the

difference between positive and negative critique: conspiring is an act of engagement, of

commitment; conspiracy theorizing is an act of deferral, of avoiding the risk--and

potential gains--associated with forwarding and executing an agenda by stagnating

within the paralysis of interpretation. In other words, conspiring is prescriptive, and

conspiracy theorizing is descriptive, largely unwilling to engage the field it exposes in a

proactive way.

We can take as an example of this productivity the conspiring of even so detestable

a figure as Joe McCarthy. McCarthy's conspiracy--and, indeed, it was his conspiracy

against the Left instead of a Communist conspiracy against the U.S. government--very

effectively demonized sympathy for Communism. By discouraging people from

considering the socialist paradigm to be a viable, civilized system, McCarthyism helped

strengthen the position of capitalism in the post-war decades. Though the aims of

McCarthy's conspiracy are irredeemably wicked and despicable, we cannot deny that his

conspiring was productive--perhaps more productive than any of the many justifiably










negative critiques of his actions. Of course, I'm not proposing that Leftists should hold

secret caucuses to plan the persecution of anyone who opposes progressive platforms, but

rather I think we can learn from the productive stance of someone like McCarthy, who

can remind us of the need to abandon the practice of (often reactive) negative critique.

Indeed, the conspiratorial necessity of collective action is precisely the lesson Jameson

draws from his reading of The Parallax View: "the conspiracy wins [...] not because it

has some special form of 'power' that the victims lack, but simply because it is collective

and the victims, taken one by one in their isolation, are not" (TGA 66).

Very generally, the practice of conspiracy theorizing limits itself to isolated,

passive descriptions of conspiracy, and it endorses a dichotomy between

description/interpretation and action, between deferral and productivity. What's worse is

that conspiratorial literature very often indicates that such passive descriptions, the mere

possession of secret knowledge about a conspiracy, will somehow, vaguely, bring that

conspiracy to an end without any accompanying action. An example of this kind of

knowledge-as-power thematic comes from Richard Donner' s film Conspiracy Theory.

Here, Jerry Fletcher (Mel Gibson) possesses knowledge of Dr. Jonas's (Patrick Stewart)

secret government-funded mind control program, and Jerry's knowledge provokes such

an excessive response from Jonas that Jonas's diabolical program collapses under the

scrutiny of other government agencies. Indeed, the logic of Conspiracy Theory relies on

the inferred link between passive knowledge and active exposure, which Eve Sedgwick

illuminates: "whatever account it may give of its own motivation, paranoia is

characterized by placing, in practice, and extraordinary stress on the efficacy of

knowledge per se--knowledge in the form of exposure" (138).









Of course, I would not presume to denigrate knowledge as an insignificant

application of power, but the ultimate message of Conspiracy Theory--that the

possession of knowledge is enough to bring about change--cultivates and justifies

complacency. Such a deferral of action confines most examples of conspiracy theorizing

to a state of non-productivity while the obj ects of the investigations, the conspirators

themselves, more significantly affect the world around them.

What I am suggesting here is that the practice of conspiracy theorizing--and this

applies to the methodologies of critical theory, too, as it represents a certain distinct

enterprise in dietrologia --has great potential benefits to social progress. However,

conspiracy theorizing will remain an ineffectual negative critique until it prescribes

collective action. Perhaps one of the best recent examples of an appropriate relationship

between description and action comes from Sam Green's documentary The Weather

Underground (2003). Green details the Weathermen's beginnings, noting that they were

deeply rooted in the social activism of the late 1960s--many were part of the leadership

of the Students for a Democratic Society, and all wanted to call attention to the racism

latent in U.S. policies concerning the Vietnam War--before they militarized and went

underground to continue their bombing campaign to raise awareness of social injustice.

The Weathermen proj ect had its share of flaws, which Green' s documentary

dutifully uncovers. However, what is also highlighted in the film, but often left

unexamined in both conservative and liberal critiques of the Weathermen, was the

members' courage to take risks in making a positive critique. Instead of languishing

under the critical methodology of descripti on/interpretation as most conspiracy theorizing

does, the Weathermen applied their knowledge to more than mere description, thereby









breaking out of the paralysis of interpretation. What is most radical about the

Weathermen proj ect is not that it imposed violence on symbols of imperialism and

racism, but that it synthesized its knowledge with an action that had the potential to bring

about change. This synthesis of knowledge and action is greatly lacking on the Left, and

it is the necessary next step for conspiracy theory if conspiracy theorizing will ever pose

a significant challenge to the conspiracy that is contemporary life itself.

Notes

SIn Did Somebody Say Totalitarianism?, Slavoj 2iiek writes that, especially on the Left,
"the moment one shows the slightest inclination to engage in political proj ects that aim
seriously to challenge the existing order, the answer is immediately: 'Benevolent as it is,
this will necessarily end in a new Gulag!'" (3-4). Later, he says that the effect of this
deferral of action is that academics--and particularly those engaged in cultural studies--
"shift from an engagement with real working-class culture to academic radical chic"
(Ziiek 226). To the negative critique inherent in this mode of critical theory, Ziiek
proposes a return to the Leninist model: "the Leninist stance was to take a leap, throwing
oneself into the paradox of the situation, seizing the opportunity and intervening, even if
the situation was 'premature'" (114).
















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44


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BIOGRAPHICAL SKETCH

Wesley Beal received a Bachelor of Arts degree in English from Hendrix College

in 2004. This thesis is the culmination of his work toward the Master of Arts degree that

he received in 2006. His plans for doctoral work are to move away from studies of

conspiracy toward a dissertation that examines figures of the urban and rural in American

literature of the twentieth century in an effort to bring Raymond Williams's 7he Country

and the City across the Atlantic.